Space Mining Startups Hope to Mine the Moon
It’s been nearly a half-century since Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the lunar surface and uttered those famous words, “Man, I need a beer.”* That moment was the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work and vision—and a testament to the human spirit and its insatiable need to explore. Now humanity (well, some sort of robotic contraption) is preparing to return to the moon, perhaps as soon as the end of this year.
This time the rocket will be propelled by more than just sweat, tears and massive government funding (about $150 billion in today’s dollars based on the estimated $25 billion cost of the Apollo program). Lean and mean NewSpace startups are competing to show that the private sector can do it better and cheaper than NASA. It doesn’t hurt that there’s more than $30 million at stake thanks to the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) and the opportunity to be the first company in position to mine the valuable resources of our closest celestial neighbor—a testament to the human spirit and its insatiable need to exploit isht. Space mining is headed to the moon. Drill, baby, drill.
Space Mining on the Moon: A Quadrillion-Dollar Business
The moon is home to various precious metals and rare minerals that are integral to our technologies. It is also a good place to pick up Helium-3, a gas that could serve as an alternative fuel in future fusion reactors. An ounce of Helium-3 is projected to be worth about $40,000. (Gold looks like quite a bargain at its current price of about $1,300 an ounce.) The Motley Fool estimates that there is about $4 quadrillion worth of extractable Helium-3 on the moon.
Water is another valuable target for space mining on the moon. It could be split into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen to be used as rocket fuel, turning the moon into the galaxy’s first 7-11 fuel station for the eventual road trip to Mars. The Motley Fool estimates the water, concentrated at the moon’s polar regions, is worth between $140 and $480 quadrillion, based on the price of how much it costs ($100,000 to $400,000) to deliver just one pound of anything to space. SpaceX and other startups are bringing those costs back down to Earth.
Earlier this year, we told you about a couple of space mining startups created specifically for asteroid mining, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. The illuminating minds at CB Insights recently drilled into space mining in a blog post (see market map above). It said that a single asteroid could be worth up to $50 billion, based on data from Goldman Sachs. The data firm also mentioned that a third startup, Moon Express, is interested in the intragalactic space mining trade, but has its sights set on the moon, which as we just learned could be worth a lot more. Let’s take a closer look at the possible incarnation of a real-world (but no doubt kinder) version of Weyland Industries.
To the Moon, Alice
Founded in 2010, Moon Express is headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley. It has raised $53 million to date (based on data from Crunchbase, which is slightly different than the total from CB Insights). Its most recent funding round was a $20 million Series B in January. The company is one of five finalists in the GLXP, a competition to place a spacecraft on the moon’s surface. The vehicle must not only land safely but then traverse at least 500 meters (a little more than a quarter mile) and transmit high-definition videos and images back to planet Earth. Moon Express reportedly has the inside track, though that’s what we thought about Astrobotic back in 2015. The company has already won $1.25 million in milestone prizes. More importantly, it has won contracts with NASA worth at least $10 million and has all the government paperwork in order for its ticket to the moon.
What Moon Express is developing are the robotic landers that will actually touch down and explore (and later mine) the lunar surface. The startup plans to hitch a ride off the planet by the end of the year on a rocket built by a company called Rocket Lab, which we profiled a couple of years ago. (Incidentally, Rocket Lab has had the best funding round of any NewSpace startup in 2017 to date, with a $75 million Series D. Unfortunately, a flight test of its new Electron rocket in May was terminated before the vehicle reached orbit due to problems with ground equipment used to track the flight. No word on how that might affect the planned launch with Moon Express this year.)
Moon Express is developing a whole range of what it calls “flexible, scalable robotic explorers”. The MX spacecraft family includes:
And, finally, the MX-9 Frontier Class Explorer, which the company says will be ready to mine the moon by 2020. In addition to winning the GLXP, the first expedition aims to deliver several payloads, including some earthly remains for Celestis Memorial Spaceflights. Celestis is a company that launches a “symbolic portion” of cremated remains into near-space, Earth orbit, and now to the moon’s surface, for the low, low price of $12,500.
We’re Not Alone
Moon Express isn’t the only Earth-bound space mining startup with plans to mine the moon for its quadrillions of dollars worth of resources. Another of the GLXP competitors, Japan’s Hakuto, is supported by ispace Inc., a Tokyo-based NewSpace startup that is developing its own lunar mining business. Also founded in 2010, ispace has raised about $2 million in disclosed funding. Its main focus is all of that lunar water, with a plan to build a series of fuel stations on the moon. After it wins the XPRIZE, the Tokyo startup hopes to begin scouting for water (as well as other resources such as industrial metals and rare earth minerals) in lunar craters and caves between 2018 and 2023 using a swarm of robotic landers. Extraction production would begin after that.
In the course of our research, we came across yet a third space mining company that is bound for the moon—Shackleton Energy Company. Founded by caving and scuba diving adventurer Dr. Bill Stone of Stone Aerospace, Shackleton Energy is also fixated on space mining the water-rich lunar polar regions for space fuel. No word on the company’s backers or funding. Stone’s previous projects have included exploring the oceans under Antarctica’s ice as a dress rehearsal for future space missions to Europa. You can find more about the multi-phase space mining plans of the company here.
We checked to see if Vegas was taking bets on the moonshot race. It’s not (though at one time it did offer odds on the first to reach Mars). Our wager is that a lunar landing probably won’t happen this year. With millions of dollars at stake, companies will play it conservatively when it comes to a launch of any kind, especially one with such high stakes. In fact, GLXP just extended the mission completion deadline last month to March 31, 2018 from December 31, 2017. The ability to land and operate a robot on the surface of the moon is really a no-brainer. NASA does it “regularly” on Mars, and the moon is only a three-day weekend away from Earth. The real trick is whether any of these one-trick startups can really make space mining on the moon a viable commercial venture. They have a quadrillion reasons to try.
*The phrase known from the history books, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” was dubbed in by NASA. Those were simpler times.