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Satellite Technology Feature Article

May 02, 2012

Those Other Space Miners and the Moon

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


As Planetary Resources soaked up the limelight with a declaration of opening up the solar system and making money through asteroid mining, lunar miners tried to get a share of the glory -- without a lot of success. Who are these firms and why do they think they have an edge over the NEO (near earth object) lovers?

The day before Planetary Resources April 25 reveal, Astrobotic Technologies and Moon Express issued press releases tied into lunar mining. Both companies are competing for the Google (News - Alert) Lunar X PRIZE to put a privately funded rover on the moon -- we'll come back to the Google connection in a moment -- and plan to leverage their efforts beyond that into full-up prospecting and mining operations.

Astrobotic Technologies, a spin-off from the Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, has an impressive portfolio. Founder Dr. William "Red" Whittaker won the DARPA Urban Challenge with a driverless car capable of autonomously navigate through city streets, avoiding other cars and obeying the California traffic code (The last part something many humans can't manage).

A family of Astrobotic vehicles will tap into that technology to avoid landing and driving hazards such as large rocks and craters. The company has already won $12 million in nine NASA lunar contracts and stands to win anywhere up to $24 million in prize money through the Google Lunar X Prize if it can successfully land a privately-funded rover on the surface by the end of 2015. Astrobotics has secured a launch spot on a SpaceX (News - Alert) Falcon 9 and hopes to launch as soon as December 2013.

Beyond the Google X PRIZE, Astrobotics plans to scour the moon's surface with an eye to peering into the deep craters of the Moon's poles to search for polar ice and explore lunar volcanic caves -- still unexplored areas.   In-orbit satellites and a NASA-crashed probe have revealed that the shaded polar craters have water, methane, ammonia and other substances.   Finding water and methane in usable quantities spells rocket fuel, with the former also providing life support and shielding.

But Astrobotics isn't alone in its quest for the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Twenty six teams from around the world are in the running. Moon Express wanted to be counted both in the running for the prize and follow-on activities for mining. The company has secured $10 million in NASA contracts for lunar-related research and development and boasts a mixture of Silicon Valley money and expertise with a dash of NASA robotics expertise. 

Moon Express announced its Science Advisory Board (SAB) on April 24, headed up by former NASA Associate Administrator and man of a thousand hats Dr. Alan Stern.   SAB has five Ph.Ds, all specialists on the moon in some form. More importantly, Moon Express' press release underlined its efforts to assess and quantify the amount of rare platinum group metals on the Moon.

Why are the two companies so bullish on the moon? First of all, it's location-location-location. The moon is within a three to four day journey by robot and it is not going anywhere.   Second, there's already a lot of "known knowns" about lunar resources, so it is now a matter of quantifying them and figuring out how to best harvest them. It's got some gravity so designing robots and more elaborate processes for mining resources isn't as complicated as zero-gravity operations, especially when you start separating gases and metals. Finally, if you need to, you can send out a (human) repairman if something expensive breaks and on-site robots can't fix it.

Astroidhead argue there are two problems with lunar mining -- gravity and the legal system. Transporting water and metals from the lunar surface to other destinations requires energy, such as rocket fuel. If there are hundreds of millions of tons of water on the moon, this is a non-issue in the short term; otherwise, it could be more inconvenient.

But who owns the moon? Various United Nations publications have suggested space is for all mankind and nobody "owns" it. However possession is, as the cliché goes, nine-tenths of the law, so the first company to start mining operations on lunar soil might have a key advantage on staking a territorial claim. We'll know lunar mining has arrived when Astrobotic and Moon Express go into court to argue who owns the mining rights to specific lunar craters and ice deposits.




Edited by Brooke Neuman



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