The indication of uranium on the moon reported by Japanese researchers last year could have wide implications.
The Japanese Kaguya spacecraft, which was launched in 2007, detected uranium with a gamma-ray spectrometer. Kaguya, officially named SELENE (Selenological and Engineering Explorer), crashed into the lunar surface at the end of its mission in June 2009.
Results from the exploration suggests that anomalously high uranium, thorium and iron (which infers certain strategic commodities as well) appear to be concentrated in Procellarum KREEP Terrain and South Pole Aitken Basin on the moon.
One of the chapters of an AAPG “Special Paper,” produced by members of EMD’s Uranium (Nuclear Minerals) Committee and currently in preparation by the AAPG Astrogeology Committee, focuses in part on the findings – and we bring this information to you now because the Special Paper will require a number of months before it is released.
Any discovery of off-world uranium and thorium in potentially economic concentrations could have a major impact on nuclear-power development on Earth and accelerate lunar exploration.
This may well result in a new space race among international interests to develop mineral resources on the moon.
High-grade uranium deposits found on Earth that may have analogies on the moon likely are those found in Canada and northern Australia. The ore-body tonnage and associated ore grade may need to be higher than those found on Earth before economic advantages are likely to justify off-world development.
The metal-rich impact sites known on Earth also have off-world analogs.
On the moon, for example, early indications of anomalous sites containing high levels of thorium, samarium and recently uranium will be on NASA‘s list for follow-up investigations when the United States returns to the moon with manned missions – assuming China, India, Russia or other countries do not claim the sites first. Recent discoveries of anomalous uranium on the moon may change the political dynamics in space, especially with Iran recently demonstrating an interest in space.
Combine that with China’s increasing claim on strategic minerals on Earth (such as samarium and other rare-earth minerals); these commodities play an important role in the world’s development today. Recent announcements suggest these minerals will soon be in short supply, and off-world resources of these commodities also will receive attention by those national interests exploring the moon and asteroids.
We see a particular irony in the role that meteor and comet impacts may have played in bringing not only water to Earth but also metals of economic value – such as nickel, uranium, thorium, etc. As previously discussed, areas in and around certain lunar impact craters have been found to contain thorium, uranium and samarium. On Earth, economic concentrations of nickel and other constituents of interest have been found near Sudbury in Ontario, Canada; in the Bushveld-Vredefort structures in South Africa; in association with ring structures in Baltic Shield rocks of Sweden and Finland; and elsewhere.
They are tempting candidates for being of off-world origins, although the prevailing thought is that such deposits on Earth are either of progenetic (pre-impact), syngenetic (contemporaneous) or epigenetic (post-impact) origin.
Currently, there are about 170 terrestrial impact structures presently known on Earth, with a discovery rate of about five new structures per year.
In any event, exploration continues on the moon and in the more remote regions on Earth, and will continue off-world this century and beyond. The justification for continuing the move into space is well made by Yeomans (1998). As indicated above, recent exploration discoveries on the Moon by Japan may accelerate activities by China, India, Japan and the United States, which may well set off a new race into space to explore for and develop natural resources, including:
But until some form of fusion or advanced solar technology is available – sometime in the distant future – the required nuclear resources (uranium and thorium) needed today and in the foreseeable future to drive the nuclear power-generating systems on Earth and in space for the rest of this century depend on the results of exploration and technological development on current and future missions to the moon and elsewhere, not only for uranium but also other minerals of strategic interests to the United States as well.
Additional information is available in reports from the EMD’s Uranium (Nuclear Minerals) Committee via emd.aapg.org, and from AAPG’s Astrogeology Committee via www.aapg.org/committees/astrogeology/index.cfm .
Michael Campbell is chair, EMD Uranium (Nuclear Minerals) Committee; EMD president; a member of the DEG Advisory Board; AAPG Advisory Council and Astrogeology Committee.
William Ambrose is co-chair, AAPG Astrogeology Committee, and EMD past-president (2007-08).