The European Space Agency hopes to be mining the moon for water and oxygen in six years’ time.
The agency took a big step toward this ambition by signing a deal with launch provider ArianeGroup on Monday. The one-year contract will see the company examine the possibility of mining regolith — lunar soil and rock fragments that can yield oxygen and water, which could be very handy if you’re trying to put a base on the moon.
The mission would use an Ariane 64 launch vehicle. The European Space Agency (ESA) has already directed ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, to develop the craft, and its first test flight is anticipated in 2020.
As for the lunar lander, that would come from the German startup PTScientists (which entertainingly stands for “Part-Time Scientists”) — the same outfit that aims to put the first mobile network on the moon.
Europe is of course not the only place looking to the moon for mining opportunities. China and India are also keen on extracting a kind of nuclear fuel called helium-3, which could be useful for providing safer nuclear energy, and potentially for powering future spacecraft.
China managed to land the first lunar probe on the dark side of the moon this month. Its ultimate goal is to establish a lunar base. Despite trade tensions back on Earth, NASA is collaborating with the Chinese on this front.