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An audacious plan to mine the surface of the moon

The MX-1 lunar lander is the centerpiece of a plan by Moon Express to mine the surface of the moon. (Moon Express)

Sometime in late 2016, a small robotic spacecraft the size of a coffee table will attempt to soft land on the surface of the moon. If it does so successfully, the new MX-1 lunar lander spacecraft from Moon Express would not only win the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE — it would also help to usher in a new era of commercial space exploration.

Soft-landing on the moon is a feat that has only been accomplished before by three superpowers – the United States, Russia and China. The notion that a team of approximately 40 employees at a Silicon Valley start-up that was founded only in August 2010 could pull off the same feat is audacious in and of itself. Thanks to a unique public-private partnership with NASA, though, Moon Express has access to NASA engineering expertise as well as access to launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center.

But the real audacity is what happens next – and that’s the strategy that Moon Express has for mining the surface of the moon. As Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, told me in a phone interview, thanks to initiatives such as NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper mission, “We have mapped every inch of the moon, both topographically and mineralogically.” As a result, Moon Express has already outlined four categories of resources that might be mined in the future – platinum group metals, rare earth elements, helium-3, and, yes, moon rocks.

Of these, the biggest opportunity by far is helium-3, which occurs on Earth in only minuscule amounts. On the moon, it’s a whole different story — since Helium-3 results from solar radiation, and the moon does not have an earth-like atmosphere to block this radiation, it’s actually thought to be plentiful on the surface of the moon.

As Jain explains, the ability to mine Helium-3 could have a tremendous future impact on both the Earth and its environment. Helium-3 is a clean, non-radioactive energy source that could potentially power nuclear fusion reactors. Theoretically, a relatively small amount could produce enough clean fuel to power entire industries, if not the entire planet. It’s for this reason that the Chinese have also announced plans to mine Helium-3 on the moon.

Another big opportunity on the moon is water, what Jain refers to as the “oil of the space economy.” Finding water on the moon would be big — and not just for the obvious reasons. Once you have water (H2O), you also have hydrogen and oxygen, and that means you have a hydrogen fuel source for rockets and oxygen to breathe. It also makes it more likely that the moon would eventually become a way station of sorts for further interplanetary exploration, or even a giant “gas station” in outer space.

In thinking about how to commercialize the moon, Moon Express uses the analogy of the moon as the “8th continent of Earth.” Once you start to think of the moon as part of the Earth’s ecosystem, rather than a standalone object in outer space, the mind-set changes.

Here’s an example of that mind-set change: What do you see when you look up at the moon at night? Most people see a barren, pockmarked surface with zero economic potential. However, Jain views the moon as an “aggregator of asteroids” – a source of rare minerals brought by interplanetary asteroids to the moon’s surface.

Once we land on the moon again, it will be easier to do it over and over again. Jain uses the example of the 4-minute mile – an athletic feat that was once thought to be impossible. But once the 4-minute mile mark was broken by Roger Bannister in 1954, it only took 46 days for another runner to break that mark.

In the same way, once we prove that a small company can get to the moon without the need for hundreds of millions of dollars in government financing, it could open the door for other companies — including other companies in the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition — also to aim for the moon. As Jain told me, “We are really at a cusp right now, space is going to become accessible for the first time. Exponential technologies are all coming together now.”

As an illustration of how the pace of technological change is democratizing the space exploration industry, Jain applies his own background as a successful serial Internet entrepreneur. He likens the task of getting to the moon and back as similar to the task of laying fiber for the Internet to get everyone connected. Using this framework, he describes Moon Express as solving the “last-mile problem” – actually landing on the surface of the moon.

And it’s here that Jain again uses an Internet-era analogy to explain what could happen next. Moon Express refers to itself as the “iPhone of space,” and what Jain says this means is that the company is going to open up the whole “space app” ecosystem once it lands on the moon. Not literally, but figuratively, of course. One example might be the pharmaceutical industry, which could develop new compounds (i.e. medical “apps”) from minerals found on the moon.

To make all this possible, of course, there’s got to be not just cutting-edge technology and the right partnerships, but also the right legal and regulatory framework in place to make all this possible. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty was largely created to prevent nations and corporations from commercializing interstellar bodies in some kind of Dune-inspired spice war to monetize the solar system’s resources.

That being said, Jain points to the recent FAA ruling on “commercial non-interference” for space exploration as a potential breakthrough for commercial mining of the moon. He notes that the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty never specifically banned commercial activities, and points to the example of the Law of the Sea as a better template for how to govern commercial activities on the moon. The FAA “commercial non-interference” rule, he says, could pave the way for companies to mark off their territory on the moon, even if they don’t actually have ownership of the lunar surface.

However, even if the regulatory issues are addressed, there’s still extensive disagreement in the scientific community about the precise economic potential of the moon. Take helium-3, for example. There could be enough helium-3 to power the earth for 10,000 years. Or there might not be enough to ever make commercial mining profitable, even if the entire lunar surface were being mined. The same argument could be made about any of the other rare earth minerals that have been cited for reasons to mine the moon.

While early Moon Express tests have been hopeful – and the company is gearing up for another test soon from Cape Canaveral – there’s still a long way to go. A YouTube video of an MX-1 prototype lander preparing for a test in December 2014 looks more like a university science experiment than the start of a bold new era in commercial space exploration. (In the video, the MX-1 lunar module hangs tethered by a rope from a giant green crane in what looks like a giant parking lot.)

For now, though, Moon Express remains one of the contenders to win the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE sometime by the end of 2016. In doing so, it could become a pioneering company in how we think about commercializing the moon. Just as there are now massive multinational corporations engaged in the extraction and delivery of Earth’s natural resources, there could one day be massive interplanetary corporations engaged in the extraction and delivery of the moon’s natural resources.