WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The Moon contains trillions of dollars worth of minerals and rare earth metals but mining and transporting them has been technically and commercially challenging, but over the next few decades that could change.
Earlier this year Moon Express, a private venture, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, was granted the first private operators license to land on, analyse and explore the Moon, now, just a few months on, Jain and his team are getting ready to board and load the spacecraft.
The moon is a treasure chest that has vast amounts of iron ore, water, rare Earth minerals and precious metals, as well as carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste and the ice beneath the poles can be used to make more rocket fuel that will one day help propel Moon Express to Mars.
Experts concur that the value of these resources are in the trillions of dollars and that makes Moon Expresses ambitions, and the ambitions of their new partners, all the more interesting.
“Getting the approval from the FAA earlier this year showed others around the world what a few entrepreneurs are capable of,” said Chairman Naveen Jain, “our venture is a great first step for other commercial space pioneers.”
“This is as much a giant leap for government as it is for private enterprise,” said Charles Chafer, CEO of Space Services Holdings and co-founder of Celestis, a space burial service.
Millions of dollars are at stake for Moon Express. As part of Google’s Lunar XPRIZE competition, the company stands to be awarded $20 million if it successfully lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high definition images and video back to Earth, and they already have six payloads on the manifest for their first mission, which is slated for the second half of 2017.
According to Moon Express CEO Richards, customers include Google Lunar X Prize, the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA), Celestis and a partnership between the University of Maryland and the National Laboratories of Frascati, Italy.
Next years mission will serve as a baseline for future missions and as well as trying to find the locations of the richest mineral and rare earth deposits the Moon Express will be setting up “Mooncams” for ILOA, who in partnership with Google will give it its own YouTube channel.
The company also expects NASA will send one or two payloads on the first Moon Express mission, Richards said. Dr Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center who is involved in planning for future Mars missions, has expressed interest in sending an incubated mustard seed plant to the moon to see how plants can be gestated in lunar gravity and radiation.
At the same time the University of Maryland will do some planting of its own but of a different kind – it will be planting retroreflectors on the moon called “Moonlight” which will allow observers back on Earth to plot the distance between the Earth and the Moon more accurately so they can test the theories of relativity and gravity.
Unlike the older, NASA Apollo moon missions next years Moon Express mission will be a fraction of the cost. The company will be using its robotic MX-IE lunar lander on Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket. According to Jain, the smaller rocket costs under $5 million for a launch, by comparison a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can cost in excess of $50 million for a launch, but both of those numbers pale into insignificance when you realise that the original 1960’s Moon landing cost the American Government in excess of $25 Billion.
Moon Express has the option of launching its first of a kind mission from one of two sites – either from Space Launch Complex 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral, Florida or from Rocket Lab’s launch site in New Zealand. Richards expects the first mission will launch from New Zealand.
In the meantime, back on Earth, American space experts hope the government ruling will prompt other space entrepreneurs to enter the race to explore and mine what is rapidly becoming known as Earth’s “Eighth continent.”