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date: 21 July 2018

Extraterrestrial Resources

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

In recent years, in analytical reviews, experts are increasingly paying attention to the growing scarcity of rare and rare earth metals (REM) necessary for the development of advanced technologies in modern industry. The volume of the world market has increased over the past 50 years from 5,000 to 125,000 tons per year, which is explained by the extensive use of REM in the rapidly developing areas of industry associated with the advancement of high technology. Unique properties of rare earth metals find their application primarily in the aerospace and other industrial sectors of the economy, and therefore they are strategic materials. For example, platinum is an indispensable element that is used as a catalyst for chemical reactions. No battery can do without platinum. If all millions of vehicles traveling along our roads install hybrid batteries, all platinum reserves on Earth will end in the next 15 years! Consumers are interested in six elements known as the platinum group of metals (PGM): iridium (Ir), osmium (Os), palladium (Pd), rhodium (Rh), ruthenium (Ru), and actually platinum (Pt). These elements, rare on Earth, possess unique chemical and physical properties, which makes them vital industrial materials. To solve this problem, in the future, projects were proposed for the utilization of a substance of asteroids approaching the Earth. According to modern estimates, the number of known asteroids approaching the Earth reaches 9,000 objects. Despite the difficulties of seizing, transporting, and further developing such an object in space, this way of solving the problem seemed technologically feasible and cost effectively justified. Really, a 10-m iron-nickel asteroid could contain up to 75 tons of rare and rare earth metals, primarily platinum group metals, which is equivalent to a commercial price of about $ 2.8 billion in 2016 prices.

However, the utilization of an asteroid substance entering the lunar surface can be technologically more simple and economically more cost effective. Until now, it was believed that the lunar impact craters do not contain the rocks of the asteroids that formed them, since at high velocities the impactors evaporate during a collision with the lunar surface. According to the latest research, it turned out that at a fall rate of less than 12 km/s, the drummer can partially survive in a mechanically fractured state. Consequently, the number of possible resources present on the lunar surface can be attributed to nickel, cobalt, platinum, and rare metals of asteroid origin. The calculations show that the total mass, for example, of platinum and platinoids on the lunar surface as a result of the fall of asteroids may amount to more than 14 million tons. It should be noted that the world’s known reserves of platinum group metals on Earth are about 80,000 tons.