FARNBOROUGH, England — Mining rare minerals on the moon could mark a new area of competition in space, though it’s too early tell whether the prospect would entail military involvement, according to the U.K.’s top military officer for space.

A scenario of nations jumping on lunar mining to refill their dried-up, terrestrial stocks has the potential for gray zone conflict, the kind of amorphous contest that transcends traditional notions of two warring parties shooting at each other, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey said at the Space Comm Expo trade show here.

For now, there is no commercial proposition for what Godfrey likened to a science fiction version of the U.S. Gold Rush of the nineteenth century.

“The cost of getting to the moon, creating a lunar base, extracting the minerals and getting them back to earth probably far outweighs mining precious minerals on the Earth,” he told Defense News in an interview.

It’s also still unclear exactly what types of rare-earth metals, critical in producing high-tech components, exist under the lunar surface. On Earth, China is a critical supplier of such ingredients. European and NATO nations are eager to diversify their supply chain as they view Beijing as an unreliable partner politically.

Godfrey characterized developments toward lunar mining as purely commercial, but, by raising the matter, made clear it has started to pop up on the radars of armed forces, with very practical questions emerging.

“Do you ring-fence your particular area on the moon if you strike gold, so to speak?” Godfrey asked.

Whether moon mining will become feasible one day depends on key technologies and ensured access to space for all, he said, adding that proliferating space debris could make the journey impossible for everyone at some point.

Reducing the cost of space launches and advancing the field of on-orbit manufacturing also are stepping stones to the vision of moon mining, Godfrey added.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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