The seemingly barren moon may actually be a treasure-trove of priceless resources: a potentially bountiful, mineral-rich – yet untapped – cosmic quarry. Still, few see the moon as an alluring mining site, ripe for the picking of rare elements of strategic and national security importance.

Here on Earth, China recently blocked the export of rare earth elements to Japan for use in an array of products; from wind turbines and glass for solar panels to use in hybrid cars, and even guided missiles and other defense-oriented creations.

China is increasingly putting the pinch on quotas of such elements out of their country. And as the scarcity of these valuable minerals grows, so too does the concern in other nations regarding the availability of this limited resource.

For instance, a recent report from the Congressional Research Service – a study arm of the U.S. Congress – reviewed the worldly use of rare earth elements for national defense.

The report looked at the production of elements such as europium and tantalum, among others, outside the United States and flagged the important issue of supply vulnerability.

The study pointed out that rare earth elements are used for new energy technologies and national security applications and asked: Is the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions of these elements? Are they essential to U.S. national security and economic well-being?

Among the policy options flagged in the Congressional Research Service assessment is establishing a government-run economic stockpile and/or private-sector stockpiles. Doing so “may be a prudent investment,” the study noted, and would contain supplies of specific rare earth elements broadly needed for “green initiatives” and defense applications.

Local concentrations

Given all the mineral mischief here on Earth, the moon could become a wellspring of essential resources – but at what quality, quantity and outlay to extract?

Providing a lunar look-see is Carle Pieters, an NLSI team member and leading planetary scientist in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“Yes, we know there are local concentrations of REE on the moon,” Pieters said, referring to rare earth elements by their acronym REE. “We also know from the returned samples that we have not sampled these REE concentrations directly, but can readily detect them along a mixing line with many of the samples we do have.”

Pieters is also principal investigator for NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, known as M3, which was carried on India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar-orbiting spacecraft. That probe was lofted by the Indian Space Research Organization in October 2008 and operated around the moon until late August 2009.

Among other findings, the M3 gear found a whole new range of processes for mineral concentrations on the moon – unappreciated until now.

For example, the M3 experiment detected a new lunar rock – a unique mixture of plain-old plagioclase – plentiful in the Earth’s crust and the moon’s highlands – and pink spinel, an especially beautiful arrangement of magnesium, aluminum and oxygen that, in its purest forms, is prized as a gemstone here on Earth.

What about the whereabouts of precious elements sitting there on our celestial neighbor in gravitational lock?

Pieters said lunar scientists have a good idea how lunar rare earth elements became concentrated – it occurred as part of the moon’s magma ocean differentiation sequence. But it is now also recognized that “early events disrupted and substantially reorganized that process in ways we are still trying to decipher,” she added.

With the recent, but limited, new data for the moon from the international fleet of lunar orbiters with remote sensing instruments ­– from Japan, China, India and now the United States, “we are beginning to see direct evidence for the activity of geologic processes that separate and concentrate different minerals,” Pieters said.

On the moon, these areas and outcrops are local and small. Exposure is largely dependent on using impact craters as probes to the interior.

Current data are only sufficient to indicate the presence of some concentrations of minerals, but are inadequate to survey and map their character and distribution, Pieters observed.

Read more at Space.com

Posted by: Soderman/NLSI Staff
Source: Leonard David; http://www.space.com/news/moon-mining-rare-elements-security-101004.html

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