SpaceX Partners with De Beers to Pursue New Lunar Opportunities

Published: April 1, 2018

HAWTHORNE, CALIFORNIA, USA – SpaceX recently announced that, in partnership with The De Beers Group of Companies, they will begin mining operations on the moon in April 2024. The operation will mine pink spinel, a gemstone which has garnered great popularity in the world’s jewelry market. Vortex® slide gates and diverters will be sourced as part of the project.

Spinel: What is it?

Did You Know? – The Timur Ruby and the Black Prince’s Ruby, two of the world’s most famous crown jewels, were actually found to be spinels.

Spinel is a species of gemstones that closely resemble ruby and sapphire. In fact, history suggests that the three gemstones have commonly been sold and mistaken as one another. This is because ruby, sapphire and spinel deposits are often found in the same locale. However, gemologists have found two primary differences between the three gems: spinel often has less inclusions (greater gem clarity) and has better color saturation.

Spinel can be found in a number of colors. Most popular are red, blue, pink, violet, and several other saturations along the spectrum. Most rare is the colorless (transparent) spinel. Because spinels become colored from mineral imbalances, colorless spinel is considered to be the gem’s “purest form.”

The History of Spinel

Rubies and sapphires were first to be discovered. When spinel was discovered – though at first it closely resembled rubies and sapphires – it was found to have higher magnesium properties and, as such, presented subtle differences in appearance. Upon this discovery, many high-end jewelers and jewelry collectors were informed they had not purchased rubies or sapphires at all – but in fact, spinels. At the time, rubies and sapphires were the benchmark for elegance. This gave spinels a poor reputation even in their infancy. From there forward, spinels were affordable alternative gems.

It was not until fairly recent history that spinels made their sudden resurgence. Gemologists discovered that though rubies and sapphires have a reputation for beauty and status, they must undergo a more stringent process to derive their appearance, while spinels possess a more natural beauty. From there, spinel’s popularity grew rapidly and today, demand for spinel surpasses the world’s supply. This, in large part, has inspired SpaceX and De Beers’ pursuance of new mining opportunities.

Spinel: Where is it?

Spinel is primarily mined in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Deposits have also been found in Africa, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, Vietnam and the United States. Though spinel is geographically widespread, mines are sparse with supply, making it a rare gem.

Spinel on the Moon: How it was Found

Pink spinel was initially discovered on the moon in 2009 by planetary scientist Carlé Pieters. What differentiates the moon’s pink spinel from Earth’s is that the moon’s pink spinel is much richer with magnesium. This gives the gems a more vibrant color and generally leaves them with less inclusions.

The moon’s pink spinels are believed to be the result of a metamorphic reaction as molten rock slowly ascends from the moon’s crust toward the surface, cooling along the way.

To date, pink spinels have only been found in two locations on the moon. That is, in craters along the Moscoviense and Nectaris Basins. Each deposit is very small – spanning approximately one mile in size. However, based on researchers’ belief that the gems are produced as part of a naturally occurring process, there is optimism that other spinel mines may exist just below the moon’s surface.

The Project: Mining Pink Spinel on the Moon

Initially, SpaceX and De Beers will perform open pit mining to gather spinels which are currently exposed at the craters’ surface. Because craters are naturally occurring open pits, SpaceX and De Beers intend to investigate these areas first to save on equipment costs and to lessen the environmental impact of mining operations.

Once all pink spinels have been extracted from the surface layer, dynamite will be used to blast the overburden and investigate into layers below.

The entirety of the extraction process – from blasting to harvest – will be carried out by a fleet of moon rovers. Each rover will be controlled remotely by a team of trained mining technologists, located back on Earth at SpaceX’s California headquarters. To ensure proper handling during the extraction process, gemologists will also be on-staff at SpaceX Headquarters to oversee the mining team.

Once raw spinels have been extracted, the rovers will transport them back to SpaceX and De Beers’ Dark Side of the Moon plant to undergo a mineral process. The system will be responsible for separating the gemstones from waste materials. Vortex slide gates and diverters will be used in the crushing and grinding stages of the process.

The Solution

Because spinel has a material hardness of 7.5 – 8, and its waste materials have similar hardness, the Vortex® Titan Series™ was necessary for this application. SpaceX and De Beers sourced several Vortex® Titan Slide Gates™ (TSGs) and Vortex® Pivoting Chute Diverters™ (PCD). Because of the unique parameters of this application, significant modifications and engineering design were necessary to ensure the valves’ success.

Because lunar temperatures can fluctuate between +/- 280 F (+/- 175 C), it is important that the valves be constructed from abrasion-resistant metals that are not only capable of handling spinel’s material hardness, but are also able to withstand extreme temperature exposure. Thus, each valve’s body, blade and material contact areas will be constructed from titandrium. For added protection, the valves will be lined with unobtanium and vibranium.

The Process

  • Each rover transports harvested spinels from the mining site to the Dark Side of the Moon plant.
  • Materials are crushed, ground and separated from their waste materials.
  • The finished spinels are washed and moved into storage rovers.
  • Once each rover is filled, they will transport and load the spinels into a fleet of space capsules. SpaceX will use special design to construct these space capsules, so that each can complete up to 10 tours from moon to Earth.
  • The capsules will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean near the Caribbean islands, at which point they will be retrieved by SpaceX’s nautical fleet.
  • The spinels will touch shore along the coasts of Florida, USA, where they will be packaged and delivered to jewelers and gem collectors worldwide.

To provide the electricity required to sustain operations, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk – also cofounder and CEO of Tesla – will construct a Tesla solar power storage system on the moon.

Results

If this joint venture proves successful, it will likely be a long-term solution to the world’s pink spinel deficit. In fact, if spinel supply reaches its projected potential, economists believe spinels could cannibalize demand for diamonds in the world jewelry market.

“We’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work,” said Musk. “Most importantly, this new, fully automated mining concept will revolutionize a mining industry which is currently fraught with human labor-related health and safety concerns. Imagine this scenario: a completed automated mining process that followed cutting edge research for how to minimize the environmental impact of mining operations. Gone are the days of grueling and dangerous human labor in the world’s diamond mines. Also gone are the days of poor mining practices and their adverse impacts on global ecosystems. This project truly is the solution we’ve been looking for to continue providing world-renowned jewelry in an ethical and environmentally conscious way.”

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