Only 12 people have stood on the Moon and looked down on Earth. The last Apollo astronaut departed in 1972; now, over 40 years later, there is growing interest in returning to the Moon. NASA is running a program called Lunar Catalyst that is helping commercial companies develop lunar transportation capabilities.
Moon Express, the first private company in history to receive permission from the U.S. government to travel beyond the Earth’s orbit, has announced plans to launch the new MX-1 lunar robotic spacecraft and begin commercial space ventures in November or December 2017. Several private companies, including Moon Express and others, have expressed their lunar ambitions. In addition to the many business applications that moon mining might offer, Google has created a $30 Million reward for moon exploration for the first private company to land a robot on the moon. The Lunar XPRIZE offers a $30M reward to the first company to land on the Moon, travel 500 meters and send 2 high-definition “mooncasts” back to the Earth by the end of 2017.
Commercial businesses are interested in the moon as a potential source of raw materials. In particular, the Moon holds valuable resources, such as cobalt, iron, gold, palladium, platinum, titanium, tungsten and uranium. However, the most valuable deposit could turn out to be a gas called Helium-3 that could fuel future nuclear reactors. Helium-3 can be used in combination with deuterium to power fusion reactors. Helium-3 is rarely found on the Earth. Estimates suggest that there are now over 1.1 million tons of Helium-3 captured in the first few meters of lunar topsoil and that around 100 tons of Helium-3 could fuel our entire planet for a year. Helium-3 is therefore worth billions of dollars a ton, making it potentially economic to mine from the Moon, even with current space technology.
To be commercially viable, any future Helium-3 mining operation would have to excavate moon rocks and extract the gas from it on the lunar surface. Mining Helium-3, or any other substance, would require the construction and operation of a significant industrial infrastructure. Such a facility could be powered by the Sun and in part be constructed from lunar materials. In fact, a European space agency has already funded experiments with a massive 3-D printer that may build future lunar dwellings by spraying a binder on successive layers of powdered moon rock.
Though this may sound like science fiction, with the advent of self-driving cars, 3-D printers and rapid advances in robotics, lunar mining may be a reality sooner than we all think. It will be interesting to see how the rising tide of interest in lunar exploration and mining will impact American business innovation.
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