The Moon Is A Natural Platform For Asteroid Mining, Detection, And Deflection

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There has been much talk in the media about what to do since last week’s astronomically unlikely double asteroid attack. Noble efforts to detect asteroid threats such as those of the B612 Foundation have received much deserved attention. Ironically, a United Nations committee was in conference over this very question while the dramas unfolded.

Many people are asking, “What is the government doing about this?” Well, the answer, sadly, is not much. NASA and other space agencies have had a few on-again off-again attempts to search and catalog asteroid threats, but there is no active government program to identify threats, and absolutely no programs to try to protect us from them. Contrary to Hollywood imaginations, the hard truth is, if we detected a large asteroid on a collision course for Earth, we couldn't do a thing about it.

But there is hope. In the near future we could have technology to not only watch out for asteroid threats, but to deflect these planet killers and harvest their vast resources. We can turn swords into ploughshares on a cosmic scale. In fact, Earth has a natural ally in this effort – the Moon.

If you wonder how often asteroids have hit us, take a look at the Moon. The Moon is saturated with craters, caused by billions of years of asteroid bombardment. The Earth has many impact craters too – but they have become disguised over time by dynamic weathering and geological activity. Most of Earth’s surviving impact features are so large that you have to go out into space to see them.

By comparison, the Earth grazing Asteroid 2012 DA14 and the Russian meteor that caught the world by surprise on Feb 15, 2013 are relatively tiny objects, hardly even rating a mention in the solar system scale of asteroid impactors. Even so, the Russian meteor exploded with over 20 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and is the largest recorded impact event since the much larger “Tunguska event” of 1908, when an object about the size of Asteroid 2012 DA14 exploded over remote Siberia, leveling a forested area of over 2,000 square kilometers.

One day it will be worse, much worse. The good news is, we can do something about it. And with our recent wake-up call fresh in our minds, the sooner the better.

How does the Moon fit in? The Moon acts like an asteroid magnet and has been aggregating asteroids for billions of years. Early in its history, the Moon swept up planetary debris and helped clear Earth’s neighborhood for safe living. As a result, the Moon has trillions of tons of asteroid material shattered and pulverized all over its surface. But unlike the Earth, the Moon has no atmosphere, so when asteroids hit you don’t have an “air burst” detonation like we witnessed over Russia last week. The asteroids hit the surface hard, over and over, and since the Moon has been a solid body for most of its history, their materials stay on or close to the surface.

Moon Express Lunar Resource

It turns out that our sister world the Moon is the best place to study and harvest asteroids. It’s dormant, unchanging surface is a museum of solar system history and represents a planetary Rosetta Stone of the asteroid bombardment record. And the Moon is close by and always in the sky, unlike the asteroids that flyby the Earth at incredible velocities or inhabit orbits tens of millions of miles away that take years to reach.

But more than just a scientific curiosity, the asteroid resources deposited on the Moon over the past 4 billion years represent an opportunity to harvest those resources in the construction of lunar bases for the benefit and protection of Earth. In fact, China and Russia have both declared objectives to set up lunar bases over the next ten to twenty years. The US is not so clear about its intentions right now, but China landing on the Moon later this year and a resurgence of international interest in the Moon could change that.

The Moon has many interesting natural virtues for scientific and commercial opportunity. It is a remarkably stable platform for astronomical observatories. And because of its very low gravity and vast resources, it will also be Earth’s space port and a fueling depot for missions to Mars and beyond.

The Moon will also play a vital role in the future of Earth’s planetary protection, one day supporting robotic sentinels that will watching the skies, able to rapidly respond to asteroid threats.

This is far from science fiction. Thanks to Elon Musk blazing a trail for commercial space with SpaceX, private spaceships have already docked with the International Space Station. My company, Moon Express, is focused on the next stage of commercial space beyond low Earth orbit, and is already developing early precursor robotic missions in partnership with NASA to explore the Moon and learn how to develop its resources for the benefit of life on Earth. Our first task is to explore the Moon’s resource hotspots and establish infrastructure on the Moon, starting with robotic explorers who will lead the way for the first permanent human outposts and colonies.

This is the dawn of a new era of commercial space, driven by entrepreneurial ventures partnered with the deep experience and know-how of NASA. How timely nature’s wake-up call, thankfully with no fatalities, that brings to us a new awareness of our fragility as a species and our obligations to our children to do something about it.

The asteroids that threaten us can also enrich us and enable us. It will be our smart choices for investments in space technology and strategic collaborations between the public and private sectors that will leverage the value of the Moon and its asteroid-rich resources to safeguard our planetary home for future generations.

[images: Moon ExpressWikipedia]

Naveen JainNaveen Jain is a trustee of Singularity University and X Prize foundation, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and a Founder and Chairman of Moon Express

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Sergey Kurdakov April 3, 2013 on 10:02 am

    there is no active government program to identify threats

    this is pretty much false statement, which is unfortunate to read on a blog with good reputation. There is a video and page ( and and ) – after looking at these links it is not possible to say, that there is no program – there are programs, they are not just enough to track all potential problems quickly. The next problem is that last really big cosmic problem was in 1908 and the probability to repeat the same is one in 1000 years. So what to deflect if nothing is known? The sane approach would be – to detect the problem that possibly could harm earth in say near 100 years, then make something. And with Pan STARRS and LSST – in 20 years we will know all problems.

    So given that we know almost all 1 km and 300 m wide asteroids what is probability that we are severely harmed in next 20 years? Quite low. The simulations show that Pan STARRS (which already works for several years ) would detect most of serious threats 2 years before collision ( it is actually more complex to track those asteroids which are about to hit us in 2 years ), so even if we are about to be hit in next 20 years – we will have some time to make preparations ( count on the fact – that when the problem is real – the creativity of people is really high ).

  • Jasper Johns April 3, 2013 on 12:34 pm

    An earth dooming asteroid? Check. Just read about it all in the funny new novel THE MYOSHI EFFECT.

  • Alain Maury April 3, 2013 on 4:15 pm

    I guess enthusiasm is no excuse not to be precise.
    “There has been much talk in the media about what to do since last week’s astronomically unlikely double asteroid attack” -> As far as I know there was no attack. An attack is a deliberate action. Here it’s just a consequence of us being there while an asteroid passed by (2012DA14 did not hit us, far from it), and the Chelyabinsk event was really not caused by an asteroid, but by a meteoroid. Nobody was killed, and it’s part of these events occurring every century, but very rarely over a city.

  • Alain Maury April 3, 2013 on 4:23 pm

    Continuing :
    “Many people are asking, “What is the government doing about this?” Well, the answer, sadly, is not much”
    This is completely false. In the Apollo era, there were 23 near earth objects known, and we are now approaching 10000, and the vast majority of them were discovered by NASA financed search programs. You could say this about ESA, but not about NASA. None of the asteroids discovered present any danger of hitting the earth anytimes soon, and it is very likely the case for all the ones remaining to be discovered, down to 100 meters of diameters (small asteroids like this hit the earth on average every 1000 years or so, so there is a 10% probability that one of these small guys will hit us in the coming 100 years… But for slightly larger asteroids, the probability of an impact is infinitesimal, you should know that. So let’s discover them, and not worry about them anymore. If you want to spend money saving human lives, there are really a lot of other projects related to education, medicine, fight against religious bigotry and the like… They kill many more humans than asteroids, who really don’t “attack” us.
    While I think that the B612 foundation Sentinel project is a very good project, worth doing, I don’t believe putting a telescope on the moon is economically wise. You can put a much larger telescope on the earth, or hundreds of them on the earth, for the same price of a telescope which will be very hard to maintain on the moon. Nice idea, just that I don’t believe it.

    • Michael Busch Alain Maury April 4, 2013 on 9:49 am

      I see that I was in significant part echoing Alain. We were typing our comments at nearly the same time.

      Good to see that we are in agreement.

  • Michael Busch April 3, 2013 on 4:32 pm

    No, the Moon is not a natural platform for asteroid mining, detection, or deflection.

    Current asteroid retrieval and mining schemes are all based around using low-thrust high-specific-impulse propulsion, such as ion engines. This makes it possible to bring large masses of material to Earth-Moon space. But such engines _can’t_ be used to land on or leave the Moon: the gravity is too high. Lunar _orbit_ is interesting as a place to park returned asteroid material. The lunar surface itself is not.

    Earth-based asteroid surveys have been very successful, and are becoming even more so. Space-based projects like Sentinel can go to better locations to find more objects more quickly. Putting an optical or infrared survey telescope on the surface of the Moon would be little better and far more expensive than putting one on the surface of the Earth.

    Re. deflection: the goal is to find all objects large enough to be worth deflecting decades before they hit, so that relatively small deflection missions can be launched from the Earth. Impactors too small to be worth detecting will be found with days to weeks of warning, more than sufficient time to evacuate the blast zone. The Moon has no role in this.

    The Moon’s presence does not significantly change the number of impacts onto the Earth, because an object on an Earth-impacting trajectory is very unlikely to pass near the Moon on its final approach and the Moon is not large or fast-moving enough to significantly scatter objects off of Earth-crossing orbits (and a significant fraction of small objects in the near-Earth population are pieces of lunar ejecta). Nor was the conjunction of the Chelyabinsk event and the flyby of 2012 DA14 “astronomically unlikely”. An object the size of DA14 or larger flies within 1 lunar distance of Earth on roughly a weekly basis. Therefore, given that the Chelyabinsk event happened, there was roughly a 50% chance of an object like DA14 passing close to the Earth within 48 hours of the impact. DA14’s flyby was unusual in that we knew about it a year in advance.

    There are many reasons why exploring the Moon is scientifically interesting, and there may be some possibilities for space resource utilization – particularly at the lunar poles (although many near-Earth asteroids require less fuel to get to). Do not dilute those with inaccurate claims.

  • aa April 3, 2013 on 9:01 pm

    “The Moon acts like an asteroid magnet” – Wow, what a terrible article. The author should probably read up on like, gravity, and how little the moon’s affect things traveling at many km/s. Good luck harvesting basalt…