Uranium on the moon. Mining the moon?

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Hello,

I will briefly report today that Uranium, a very famous radioactive element was found on the surface of the moon thanks to the gamma-ray spectrometer on board the Japanese mission called Kayuga.

I already described extensively the Kayuga mission,officially named SELENE (“Selenological and Engineering Explorer”), in my previous posts. The orbiter of this mission is equipped with a gamma-ray spectrometer which allows the identification of atoms which composed the surface of the moon. The principle is relatively simple: the surface of an airless body (moon, mars) is subjected to a continual bombardment of high-energy cosmic rays, which excite nuclei in it to emit characteristic gamma-rays which can be detected from orbit [adapted from wikipedia]. Analyzing the spectrum, the scientisits are able to determine the composition in elements and isotopes. It is definitely a powerful technique to determine the composition of a surface by remote sensing.

During the last LPSC conference near Houston, various group published preliminary studies of the Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) data collected by Kayuga main orbiter for 2 years. The mission ended recently with a controled crash on the surface of the moon (see these 2 posts A and B). Yamashita and his colleagues reported in a brief paper the detection of Uranium, Thorium and Potassium. I am attaching below, and for the specialists, a part of the spectrum showing the emission peak corresponding to Uranium (which is in fact the addition of various emission lines) extracted from their article.

The detection of Uranium using SELENE GRS (from Yamashita et al., LPSC 40th, 2009)

The detection of Uranium using SELENE GRS (from Yamashita et al., LPSC 40th, 2009)

If you have a look on another paper, also presented at the LPSC conference, by Reedy and his colleague, you will see that the gamma ray spectrum (Fig.1) contains a large number of emission lines complicating significantly their identifications. Analyzing the intensity of these lines, planetary scientists are able to build map of distribution of materials on the surface of the moon.

So concretely, why this discovery is important and what will it change? Not much for the moment, it is only another step in our understanding of this close neighbor. However, if in the future we do need to produce energy for our lunar bases, it will be possible to envision the use of this uranium for this purpose creating something like nuclear-powered colony?

My goal today was to illustrate today how from the fit on a few dots in data collected by a spacecraft, we can get science fiction dreams again… :-)

If you want to know more about mining the moon. you should check out the  October 2004 issue of Popular mechanics. I am attaching a copy of the first artistic figure.

Artistic view of future miner base on the moon (Popular Mechanics Oct 2004). Robotic equipment would scrape and refine lunar soil. Helium-3 would be sent to Earth aboard a future space shuttle or perhaps be shot from an electric rail gun.

Artistic view of future miner base on the moon (Popular Mechanics Oct 2004). Robotic equipment would scrape and refine lunar soil. Helium-3 would be sent to Earth aboard a future space shuttle or perhaps be shot from an electric rail gun.

About Franck Marchis

Dr. Franck Marchis is a Senior Researcher and Chair of the Exoplanet Group at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute since July 2007. Over the past 19 years, he has dedicated his research to the study of our solar system, specifically the search for asteroids with moons, using mainly ground-based telescopes equipped with adaptive optics. More recently, he has been also involved in the definition of new generation of AOs for 8 -10 m class telescopes and future Extremely Large Telescopes. He has developed algorithms to process and enhance the quality of images, both astronomical and biological. His currently involved in the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey, which consists in imaging exoplanets using an extreme AO system for the Gemini South telescope. This new instrument is capable of imaging and recording spectra of young Jupiter-like exoplanets orbiting around nearby stars.

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