"We need to act now."
As humans barrel ever closer to colonizing the Moon, the prospect of lunar mining is also becoming more real — and the consequences just might be dire.
In interviews with The Guardian, astronomers raised alarm bells about the coming rush to mine the Moon as the NASA-funded Peregrine lander, sent out by the private spaceflight company Astrobotic, was slated to survey the lunar surface (side note: it ran into trouble shortly after launch.)
Those experts make a straightforward point: the more development occurs on the Moon, be it for habitats or resources taken back to Earth, the less scientists can use our planet's natural satellite for study.
"We are not trying to block the building of lunar bases," University of Arizona astronomer Richard Green told the Guardian. "However, there are only a handful of promising sites there and some of these are incredibly precious scientifically."
Take, for example, the Moon's deep craters that have never seen sunlight.
"They are unbelievably cold — probably only a few dozen degrees above absolute zero," Green added. "And that makes them scientifically very valuable."
Naturally, this sort of academic warning flies in the face of humankind's insatiable hunger for profit. That's why a working group headed up by Green is set to meet with the United Nations later this month to discuss the strengthening of space laws that could prohibit a potential lunar gold rush from becoming too much of a frenzy.
Despite massive advancements in spacefaring over the past few decades, there haven't been too many updates to space law since the 1967 passage of the Outer Space Treaty, which prevents any one country from laying claim to a celestial body.
In 1979, the UN introduced a Moon Treaty demanding that the Moon and other bodies "should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, that their environments should not be disrupted." It's not a stretch to suggest that those laws are in serious need of upgrade.
On the flip side, the prospect of mining the Moon's troves of "rare Earth minerals" used to create smartphones and other consumer tech has long tantalized business types and scientists alike. Indeed, Peregrine is but the first in a series of planned public and private lunar missions slated for this year alone, all of which are intent not only on scientific advancements but also on figuring out which parts of the Moon will be best for drilling and setting up bases.
While lunar habitats may well become part of humankind's survival strategy as we become an interplanetary species, some of that tiny, barren sphere must be preserved for science — if not for the sake of those who will live on it.
"We need to act now," Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist affiliated with both Harvard and the Smithsonian, told The Guardian, "because decisions made today will set the tone for our future behavior on the Moon."
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