Ranked just after the human desire for adventure and discovery is the drive to make a buck off of whatever has been found.
Now, with the privatized space race well under way, there are even designs on the moon.
Moon Express could soon gain approval for the first private space mission to leave Earth’s orbit and land on the lunar surface, a giant leap for business interests in space but a small step toward the eventual goal of making a business out of space travel.
Paul Spudis, a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and an adviser to Moon Express, said that there are definite business opportunities on the moon — as long as you’re in the business of space exploration.
And as long as you’re patient.
“I think part of the problem people have with this is they can’t see a market that has big payoffs in the near term, which is probably true,” Spudis said.
The most immediate payoff to private moon landings will be learning what is up there than can be used to help future missions — primarily related to energy generation.
“The initial market is largely informational,” Spudis said. “Whether that has commercial value lies entirely on what people do with it.”
The collection of data also opens a thorny question: Should the data generated during a private space mission be viewed as proprietary information that is private to the company that collected it?
The MX-1 lunar lander from Moon Express, which is designed to mine the surface of the moon.
Image: moon express
Spudis noted that government involvement at various levels could lead NASA to declare the data collected on the trip to be part of the public domain. A company that fully funds a mission, on the other hand, would have the opportunity to keep all or part of its data private.
He noted that we don’t have a definite idea of how these legal issues would play out, but that there is a good chance that companies at some point will be able to keep some of their information private.
“If someone designs their own instruments and collects their own science team and completely funds that mission… they could very well decide to make it proprietary if they wanted to,” Spudis said.
Water and energy
There’s a very good chance that once we establish a better understanding of the moon, we will then be able to harness water and energy, among other more exotic resources thought to be present there in some form.
If you’re thinking of starting a moon-based bottled water company, though, hold your space horses. We have plenty of water and energy on Earth, so there’s not a great reason to bring them back down.
“Effectively, you can make the moon a refueling station”
You wouldn’t want to bring them down anyways, as they’ll be far more valuable up on the moon. Space travel is difficult in part because you need to launch absolutely everything you need on a big, expensive rocket. That includes energy and water.
Instead, a company could produce those things on the moon and then offer them to whatever other organization or company needed them for their space exploration programs.
“Effectively, you can make the moon a refueling station,” Spudis said.
Below, a diagram of how such a system could work.
Image: Jack Frassanito & Associates/Paul Spudis
This isn’t necessarily easy to do, but Spudis noted that the technology needed to take water found on the moon and make it useful is not particularly exotic.
“It sounds like science fiction but it’s really not,” he said.
Once we can power things with energy harnessed from or located on the moon, that will open the door to actually making things there — possibly with indigenous materials.
“There are materials on the moon that can be used to build an ability to live off planet,” Spudis said.
Spudis noted that new manufacturing technologies like 3D printing could be used to make replacement parts for spacecraft. There are also some resources that could be mined on the moon, including aluminum, iron, titanium and radioactive thorium, which could be used in a nuclear reactor.
An artist’s illustration for a launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
These materials, combined with advanced production techniques, could open the door to using the moon as a resource base for space exploration missions deeper into the greater solar system.
That’s a potentially lucrative business, assuming that funding for such missions can be found.
“We’re going to use the material and energy resources of the moon to create new space faring capability,” Spudis said.
Government funding — and the regulations that come with it — will be essential for launching companies like Moon Express, Spudis said.
But private companies are becoming more integral to space travel and exploration than ever before. The business of space, therefore, becomes all the more important.
“It’s partly governmental and it’s partly commercial,” Spudis said. “The way I look at it, they’re both going to go hand in hand into the solar system.”
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