Beresheet, the privately funded lunar lander developed by SpaceIL, marks the beginning of a new “Moonrush” of commercial space ventures. (credit: SpaceIL)
by Gerald Black
The California gold rush was kicked off in 1848 by the discovery of gold in California. Fortune hunters came in droves. Only a small percentage of the miners became wealthy from this and the other gold rushes of the 19th century. But many others became wealthy by providing the settlers with transportation infrastructure, housing, supplies, and bordellos.
Space engineer and entrepreneur Dennis Wingo coined the term “Moonrush” in 2004 in his excellent book Moonrush: Improving Life on Earth with the Moon’s Resources (see “Review: Moonrush”, The Space Review, August 16, 2004) The Moonrush is now on, fueled by entrepreneurs dreaming of profits from Earth’s nearest neighbor. Leading the Moonrush are a bunch of private companies developing small lunar landers and rovers to explore the Moon.
On February 21, the first mission of the Moonrush embarked aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The Beresheet lunar lander built by Israel’s SpaceIL was launched as a secondary payload, sharing the ride with the Indonesian communications satellite PSN-6. After reaching geostationary transfer orbit, Beresheet and the communications satellite separated from the Falcon 9 launcher. The communications satellite will propel itself to geostationary Earth orbit. Meanwhile, Beresheet is slowly raising its orbit. In early April the spacecraft will enter lunar orbit, then land on the Moon. Israel Aerospace Industries, the company that built the lander for SpaceIL, announced plans in January to partner with the German company OHB to offer a commercial lunar payload delivery service to the European Space Agency.
What propels private companies like SpaceIL in this push for the Moon? The Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), a contest that offered a prize of $20 million to the first privately funded team to land a robot on the Moon, travel more than 500 meters, and transmit back high definition images and video by the contest deadline, was a big factor. Dozens of teams entered the contest. The contest deadline expired last year without a winner of the grand prize, but some teams did receive smaller prizes for milestones achieved.
Besides SpaceIL, other GLXP teams are still active. Astrobotic Technology plans to launch its first spacecraft, the Peregrine lunar lander in 2020 or early 2021 aboard an Atlas V rocket. Moon Express signed a contract with Rocket Lab for as many as five launches of its Electron rocket. The Japanese company ispace inc. (not to be confused with the Chinese rocket company iSpace) has contracted for two launches aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the first in 2020 and the second in 2021. Other still active teams include TeamIndus in India and PTScientists in Germany.
NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS, pronounced “clips”) is adding further incentive. Under this program NASA will purchase the services of private companies to send small landers and rovers to the Moon. The goals include exploration, in situ resource utilization (ISRU), and lunar science. This program will provide up to $2.6 billion in contracts over the next 10 years. The first mission under this program could be launched as soon as late this year.
On November 29, NASA announced the selection of nine companies that are eligible to compete for CLPS contracts. Included are Astrobotic Technology and Moon Express, both companies that competed in the GLXP competition. Only US-based companies are eligible, but two of the foreign teams that participated in the GLXP competition are now subcontracting with US companies competing for CLPS contracts: ispace inc. is working with Draper Laboratory and TeamIndus is part of the team led by Orbit Beyond. Also competing for CLPS contracts are Deep Space Systems, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, and Masten Space Systems.
Concurrently, Blue Origin is developing a much larger lunar lander called Blue Moon that can land several metric tons of cargo on the Moon. And the German companies OHB and MT Aerospace have tapped Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Blue Moon lander to ferry a payload to the Moon in 2023.
Landers and rovers will be sent to numerous locations on the Moon to tell us more about the available resources. Rovers that include sample analysis laboratories like the one aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars will provide details about the constituents of the lunar rocks and soil. Deposits of gold, platinum group metals, and rare earth metals are likely to be found. Especially promising in this regard are the numerous impact craters on the Moon. High concentrations of precious metals have been found in craters where asteroids impacted the Earth. Riches are there to be had, and mining may well become a major industry on the Moon.
Precious metals aren’t the only way entrepreneurs can become wealthy from the Moonrush. There are all kinds of ways to take advantage of this renewed interest in the Moon. Lunar transportation infrastructure is a key opportunity, not only for robotic probes but also for cargo and astronaut transport. To control costs, there is an urgent need for a fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle. Enter Elon Musk and SpaceX.
SpaceX’s next-generation launch system is comprised of the Super Heavy first stage and the Starship second stage. This fully reusable system would launch the Starship into a high elliptical Earth orbit, where it will be refueled by tanker vehicles also launched by the Super Heavy booster. With orbital refueling, the Starship can land many tons of cargo or a large crew on the Moon and return to Earth without the need to refuel on the Moon. Test flights of a sub-scale Starship hopper are scheduled to begin later this year. A full-scale Starship vehicle and the Super Heavy booster may be ready for flight testing in 2020.
Lunar tourism is another way of generating wealth from the Moon. The first lunar tourist is likely to be Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire who purchased a flight around the moon in the Starship for himself and six to eight artists that he will invite on the trip. This flight could occur as early as 2023. And Robert Bigelow, the CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, is dreaming about establishing facilities on the lunar surface that could host tourists and others.
The Trump Administration has set returning to the Moon to stay as a major goal of the human spaceflight program. The first lunar base could be established by the end of the 2020s, probably in the Moon’s north or south polar regions. Robotic probes have shown indications of significant quantities of water in some of the craters that lie in perpetual darkness near the poles. If this water is in a form that is readily accessible, such as surface ice, then it will be a valuable resource to the base. The landers and rovers under development now will soon answer the question of the accessibility of the water in the polar craters.
Besides drinking water, water can be used to produce hydrogen and oxygen to use as rocket propellants, to power fuel cells for pressurized rovers or to provide oxygen to breathe. It may prove a lot cheaper to extract water from the polar craters than to transport it to the Moon from the Earth. The extraction and processing of lunar water is just one of many opportunities for making money in the emerging field of ISRU. Yet another ISRU opportunity is utilizing lunar resources to 3-D print habitats on the Moon.
The Moonrush is a potential bonanza. Imagine the new inventions, new industries and economic benefits it will bring.