There have been cheesy stories about super villains threatening to blow up the moon for decades, but the idea is about to become a little less crazy. A new plan by a billionaire and his associates could lead to moon mining, and change the energy and natural resources industries forever. Moon Express has cleared the initial hurdles from the US government to allow it to explore and commercialize space including the moon.
Moon Express is the brainchild of billionaire Naveen Jain, space technology expert Dr. Barney Pell, and futurist Dr. Bob Richards. The company is setting a goal to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon in 2017 to conduct preliminary analysis and exploration of extractable minerals. In particular, the moon is thought contain immense amounts of iron, water, rare earth elements (or perhaps they should be called rare moon elements), precious metals, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium-3.
Some of these lunar elements, like precious metals, are valuable for sale on earth, while others like iron ore could be used by future space colonies like the one envisioned by SpaceX pioneer Elon Musk. Perhaps most importantly, helium-3 could be used for space based fuel in fusion reactors without generating nuclear waste. That is critical since any future space development from tourism to actual colonies would require vast amounts of energy that couldn’t be easily extracted from the Earth’s surface. Moon Express also sees the moon serving as a sort of outer space fuel depot to produce rocket fuel from the ice trapped at the moon’s poles.
Moon Express is not the first well-funded start-up to explore commercialization of space. Numerous companies are exploring opportunities in the area from Blue Origins and SpaceX to a direct Moon Express competitor backed by Google founders and called Planetary Resources.
Even still, Moon Express’ progress is significant for two reasons. First, it was easy to talk about extracting energy and commodities from outer space a few years ago when prices were quite high. Now thanks to the crash of China and the collapse of oil prices, it’s unclear if some of these business plans even make theoretical sense, let alone practical sense. Jain and his compatriots obviously see potential in their plan even given the current economic environment. That’s significant if for no other reason than the fact that being a billionaire gives one a lot of resources and connections. Related: The Consequences Of Big Oil’s Exploding Debt
Second, Moon Express’ progress is significant in that it paves the way for other companies to follow by getting US government approval for outer space commerce. The FAA issues the approval through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. It’s a little unclear what jurisdiction the US or any other earthly government has over actions that take place in space, but it is clearly good to have the implicit backing of the most powerful economic, political, and military organization on the planet.
In the short run, Moon Express is not likely to be doing much mining. Instead the first way to generate revenue for the firm would be to simply claim the $20 million XPrize being offered by Google to the first company that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon and completes certain tasks with that lander.
Moon Express will be working with a Rocket Lab USA Electron rocket for the 2017 launch. The company already has several additional paying customers looking to send payloads to space as well. It may take a little time to realize the company’s vision, but if it succeeds Moon Express will secure its place as the most out-of-this-world energy and mining company on the planet.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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