As space-based commerce dawns, an ambitious few want to mine the Moon and near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and more.
In May last year, a spacecraft called Dragon made history. Developed by Space X, a California-based private space transport company, the craft became the first commercial spacecraft to ferry cargo between the International Space Station and Earth.
With Nasa scheduling a third re-supply mission for 9 December this year, the craft proves that a private space business can succeed. But for many more, commercial space transport is only the beginning.
'We're opening up a whole new world to humanity that has abundant resources that will help project us into a multi-planet species,' says Bob Richards, chief executive of lunar lander developer, Moon Express. 'We believe that once we start exploring and prospecting the Moon, we will discover resources that we didn't know existed... and will change humanity's future.'
Richards heads up one of a growing band of new and ambitious private organisations that are very serious about mining the 'Moon or mining asteroids. Moon Express, for example, was founded in 2010 with a view to developing resources on the Moon while asteroid mining ventures Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries followed in 2012 and 2013.
The motivation for each entity is minerals and precious metals. Asteroids and the Moon, which has had its surface steadily battered by asteroids, are suffused with valuable metals; Nasa reckons a small, house-sized asteroid should contain metals worth millions of dollars. These include iron, nickel, titanium, platinum group metals, critical to fuel cell and clean tech development as well as rare earth elements such as lithium, as used in batteries and mobile phones. What's more, the Moon is loaded with vast quantities of the isotope helium-3, a potentially valuable fuel source for future nuclear fusion plants.
But minerals aside, what these up and coming commercial space enterprises also have in common is cash. As Richards puts it: 'We are backed by billionaires that are highly networked individuals. Not conservative venture funds that are looking for this investment and that investment; no, we're backed by visionaries.'
Indeed, Richards' colleagues at Moon Express include ex-Microsoft billionaire Naveen Jain while Planetary Resources has publicly boasted backing from Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. But money aside, the businesses also ooze credibility.
Leaders from both Moon Express and Planetary Resources are former Nasa Mars mission managers while a Deep Space Industries chair led the team that turned Russia's Mir Space Station into the world's first commercial space facility. And with their thirst for minerals backed by billionaire funds, these up and coming entities have ambitious plans.
According to Richards, Moon Express will send a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon for exploration and commercial development. His team of electrical, avionics, propulsion, software and RF design engineers has focused on developing lunar landers – lander systems that slow down and land on a surface – working with Nasa from the outset.
In 2010, the company won a Nasa contract for the purchase of technical data resulting from lunar lander development and demonstration. And the organisation is currently validating its guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software in test flights, on-board Nasa's own prototype lunar lander testbed, 'Mighty Eagle'.
Nasa is avidly nurturing partnerships with up and coming lunar and asteroid ventures, hoping the shared expertise will better its own programs and help drive the commercial sector forward too. And as Richards highlights, his systems are crucial.
'You can buy everything you need to get to the Moon apart from the thing that slows you down and lands you on the Moon,' he says. 'Space X and many other suppliers sell rockets, these things are commodities, but you can't buy the last mile solution of getting to the Moon – the lunar lander – and that's what we have been concentrating on.'
Fly me to the Moon
Lunar Express's first mission is scheduled for 2015, tying in with the Google Lunar X-Prize competition in which private companies are racing to land a craft on the Moon by 31 December of that year. Its lunar lander will probably launch as secondary payload on the launch craft of a commercial satellite but then transfer from geostationary orbit to the surface of the Moon using its onboard propulsion.
According to Richards, the company is aiming for the near side of the Moon, focusing on a several hundred kilometre square region of dark mantle deposits expected to have very high titanium content. The lunar lander's payload will include imaging systems, including a neutron spectrometer, to measure bulk hydrogen composition of the Moon's surface at the landing site, as well as elemental composition.
During initial missions, kilogram samples of lunar material will be removed and brought back to Earth. Richards suggests these will be vacuumed from the Moon's surface using pressurised gases from the lunar lander, and on touchdown will become the first privately owned samples of lunar material in the world with each kilogram valued at more than $1bn.
This price sounds incredibly high, but then Nasa is spending around $800m – excluding the launch vehicle – on its OSIRIS-REx mission, which will return some 60g of material from a near-Earth asteroid. In addition to Nasa, other national space agencies will likely purchase commercial samples of extraterrestrial material in a bid to gain a greater foothold in space-based commerce.
Beyond the Moon
Asteroids offer a different mining proposition. While the idea of exploiting the natural resources of asteroids dates back more than 100 years, only now is technology becoming available to make this a reality.
Just last year, the California-based Keck Institute for Space Studies enlisted the great and the good from the space industry, including the Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center and Harvard University, to investigate the feasibility of capturing and dragging a small near-Earth asteroid into the Moon's orbit. And all by 2025.
The Keck team reckoned it was do-able for $2.6bn – slightly more than Nasa's 'Curiosity Mars rover – and the entire process would take between six to ten years' (see 'Asteroid capture: how do they do it?'). But while Nasa now considers the multi-billion dollar asteroid dragging exercise, would-be commercial asteroid ventures, including Deep Space Industries, intend to make a less ambitious start.
'We're in the gathering business,' says David Gump, chief executive of Deep Space Industries. 'We think it's much more practical to track and approach a medium-sized asteroid that is at least 100m in diameter, pluck off boulders two to three metres in size, and vacuum up regolith to the capacity of our return vehicle.'
Gump and his team are currently using data from ground-based telescopes and ongoing government-funded missions to identify near-Earth asteroids in a similar orbit to our planet. As he explains, they are searching for less dense, so-called rubble-pile asteroids – from which minerals will be easier to extract – and adds: 'We also need to discover how fast an asteroid is spinning; if it's a fast spinner then it's going to be hard to gather material from it.'
Come 2016, the business intends to send out its first 'Firefly' probes to investigate potential asteroid targets, communicating size, rotation and resources back to Earth.'These one-way prospecting craft will be built from off-the-shelf cubesat and nanosat components and like Moon Express's initial craft, will be sent into space as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles.
Gump reckons larger craft, 'Dragonflies' equipped with mining tools and fuel for a return journey, will set off during 2017 to harvest kilograms of asteroid material for scientific research and private collections. And come 2019, Gump says the company's full-scale commercial craft, known as Harvestor, will take-off with the first vehicle returning several hundred tonnes of material for processing within four years.
But precious metals and minerals aside, water is the key resource any future space-based industry must develop first. Water is critical for life support and fuel propellant; break water apart into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen and you have rocket fuel. However, launching water into space from Earth consumes considerable energy so using what's already in space would slash mission costs.
Both Gump and Richards are very aware of this. Richards talks of building fuel stations on the Moon to supply his craft with hydrogen peroxide. 'Without this you'd have to take all your fuel with you for your journey back, and this just isn't economically viable.'
Meanwhile, Gump's team intends to harvest water-rich asteroids; water from these asteroids could be used as propellant, as well as shipped to strategic storage locations set up as re-fuelling stations depots. Such fuel could be sold to Nasa and other space agencies, feed communications satellites and be directed, alongside water, to manned space stations, boosting the economics of space commerce considerably.
Deep Space Industries has already laid out plans for an asteroid fuel processor that would be launched to a geosynchronous orbit. And as Gump explains: 'We're currently trading off whether we want to invent a zero gravity refinery or if we want to spin our processing facilities so we can use standard terrestrial methods to separate the fractions we want for propellant.'
He adds: 'Several billionaires are bringing down the cost of getting into space over the next decade, so within 20 years, we will have several private space stations carrying out, say, the kind of zero-gravity research for pharmaceutical firms that makes a lot of money. We really need to bring down the cost of operating in space.'
Could we and should we?
But while the billionaire-backed ventures battle with costs, some industry-watchers are asking the question; yes, we could, but should we?
Space exploration researcher Alice Gorman is based at Flinders University, Australia, and is an internationally recognised leader in the emerging field of space archaeology. Passionate about space, she believes both industry and academia underestimate the emotional investment people have in the night sky.
'There is the view that it's just unethical to destroy another celestial body... but then [people] also question if it is right for a profit-making company to make massive profits from this,' she says. 'Nobody doubts the investment will be monumental and some argue that those willing to take these risks deserve all the rewards as this isn't for the faint-hearted.'
But, as Gorman also highlights, the world already has unequal distributions of wealth and some wonder if space-based industries could drive these disparities further apart. As she asks, could Earth one day comprise a terrestrial-based underclass looking up at the off-world wealthy.
Only time will tell if ethical and moral issues will stymie progress; but Richards remains unfazed. Having experienced public reactions first hand, he puts these down to social and political views, saying extreme socialists will hate the idea, extreme capitalists love the idea.
'People are very attached to the Moon, biologically and psychologically, but take it for granted, and new exploration activities will redefine why the Moon is important to us,' he says.
'The world will continue to grow thanks to the explorers and entrepreneurs who will do this anyway, backed, I think, by a rational majority.'