Shooting for the moon -- to mine it

Dec 15, 2011 By Eryn Brown
Moon. Photo courtesy of NASA

Most people don't take it literally when they're told to shoot for the moon - but thinking small isn't Naveen Jain's way. The 52-year-old Internet entrepreneur is a co-founder of Moon Express Inc., one of several companies in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, in which privately funded teams will try to put robots on the moon by 2016.

Jain's plans don't end at reaching the moon's surface. MoonEx, as his company is also known, plans to make billions mining the moon for precious resources. It also hopes to let customers send messages and materials to the moon.

Jain spoke with the Los Angeles Times about the project.

Q: Why go to the moon?

A: Our interest in the moon came because we think it's a great business, not because it's a great hobby. My whole thinking really is, how do we use science and entrepreneurship to solve the big problems?

The MoonEx project came about because we started thinking: There are a tremendous amount of resources that are available on the moon, and the moon has never been explored from the perspective of an entrepreneur. Every 6 inches of moon has been mapped. But no one has combined the data together and realized (that) these resources are right here.

Q: What kinds of resources?

A: . Today, 80 percent of these come from , which now has a policy not to export them. That means we're held hostage. We know we can get these elements on the moon.

Q: What makes MoonEx different from moon landers of old?

A: Starting out, I knew nothing about the moon. Or space. But that is what allows us to do things that other people have not done.

The space business has always thought, you want to build the biggest possible . My thinking was, why not build the smallest possible craft? And instead of building a rover, we're building a hover aircraft. It's going to be about 5 feet by 5 feet, and it will be self-guided.

Q: What will this cost you?

A: The idea is to develop a system and take a lander to the moon for under $70 million. NASA had to spend billions of dollars to figure out how to do it. Now we're able to use existing technologies.

Q: By passing the torch to companies like yours, is NASA giving up?

A: NASA isn't giving up on the moon or outer space. They're simply passing this on to the private sector and saying, "Look, the science for this has been developed." Now it's up to the private sector to go out and create businesses.

Now there is a chance for the government to go out and push the envelope in space even further. They can go out and develop the technology to go to Mars, develop the technology to go to asteroids. I think the government is doing the right thing.

Q: Who owns the moon?

A: People do say, "What right do you have to go up there and do this?" But it's no different than looking at international waters, which nobody owns. You can go out there and fish, and the fish you bring in is yours. You can drill there, and the oil you bring in is yours. You still don't own the water. How is it going to be different on the moon?

Q: What are the biggest technical challenges you face?

A: There is no technical challenge. It's rocket science, but well-understood rocket science. All we're doing, really, is trying to put together technology in the most optimal way to bring the cost down.

Q: But you do have to figure out how the lander will lower itself to the surface.

A: Yes, we have to develop a last-mile solution - a last-10-feet solution. The problem is how to slow down, fire the propulsion, land in the right place and be able to move around.

Q: In addition to bringing resources back to Earth, you're sending messages and other items to the moon, right?

A: We are asking people, "What does the moon mean to you - and would you pay to send something there?"

It's the best time capsule you could ever find, because nothing gets destroyed there - even the astronauts' footprints are still there. So would you pay $20 to send a picture of your family? Would you send the DNA of your pet? Would you send your grandfather's ashes?

We're building a platform that will allow people to do all kinds of things on the moon and control those activities over the Web. What people will do with that, you and I could only guess. We all knew people were going to do things on their iPhones. Who would have thought the No. 1 thing people were going to do is throw birds at pigs?

Q: What is your relationship with NASA?

A: We have an agreement with NASA that allows us to use NASA technology and allows us to hire NASA to do work for us. Also, NASA has matched the Lunar prize for $30 million. We're one of those three companies in the running.

Our hover test facility is at NASA Ames (Research Center) in Mountain View.

Q: When do you think it might take off?

A: Right now, we're shooting for late 2013, two years from now.

Q: Will scientists use the MoonEx rover for research?

A: Absolutely! There will be scientific missions, there will be consumer missions, there will be business missions.

Q: One could imagine a day when there are various craft roving the , busily working away. How long in the future is that?

A: My gut is it will be the next five years.

Q: Do you expect MoonEx to be profitable?

A: We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it could be a profitable business.

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Nanobanano
3.5 / 5 (6) Dec 15, 2011
You can make it profitable, but you need to be transporting something really, really expensive,like platinum or something people are willing to pay an absolute fortune.

I don't know how they would do the Geology(Lunology?) to discover the richest deposits of whatever they intend to mine...that would require thousands of probes and core samples, etc.

On Earth, humans discovered most metal resources over time scales of hundreds or thousands of years, with thousands and even millions of people doing the footwork and research.

On the moon, they will need massive automation, because it will be too expensive to be profitable if you need dozens, hundreds, or thousands of human astronaut workers.

They'll have to be at least a step ahead of NASA, because NASA is nothing but an entertainment industry now: a government jobs program.

I'd be proud to work for these people, help brainstorm ideas or some shit, because at least they've got vision, instead of the same old tired BS...
GDM
4.3 / 5 (6) Dec 15, 2011
There are plenty of Rare Earth Elements on Earth, but they are expensive to refine. China has a virtual monopoly because of their low labor costs. Molycorp is one US company already restarting their operations.
Mining the moon for minerals to export to Earth is slightly "wrong-headed". The real profit is in not having to bring minerals/materials up from Earth. Water (Hydrogen and Oxygen) is the BIG winner since both north and south poles have plenty of the stuff (ice). If you can set up teleoperated mining, refining, manufacturing and assembly operations, you will have a winner. The best site for this is Malapert Monte, near the south pole, where the sun's illumination is nearly constant. From there, it is a short drive to a permanently shadowed crater where ice is highly probable. The instruments aboard the Lunar Recon. Orbiter (LRO) have already identified significant iron and thorium deposits, alon with other minerals. Lots of stuff if you Google it.
Nanobanano
2.2 / 5 (5) Dec 15, 2011
What do you identify as a "significant deposit"?

On the moon, I assume the primary power will be solar, so without atmosphere, they'd have 1365 watts/m^2.

Still, it's not like on earth where you can just burn some coal and make power to smelt and refine metals. you'll need a solar powered electric smelter, and for that to be cost effective, I think you'll need ores of decent concentrations.

It seems awesome in one sense, in that you could mass produce robots and rockets from aluminum on the surface, but then again, the mineralogy isn't known. Corundum, yes, but what size crystals?

I think they'll need diamond tipped tools, or lasers or something.

We use a lot of explosives on Earth for mining, but on the Moon, that won't be safe. You can't risk penetrating any of your living facilities or vehicles with high-velocity debris.
pokerdice1
3.2 / 5 (6) Dec 15, 2011
My rating will go up when Moonexpress sends something up. Until then, talk is only worth 2 stars.
_nigmatic10
2 / 5 (4) Dec 16, 2011
-A random conversation of fiction-
little girl: "Daddy? what happened to the moon?"
Daddy: "It was trying to run away from earth, so we mined it back to earth before it left."
little girl: "So what is that in its place now?"
Daddy: "The machines we used."
omatumr
1.5 / 5 (6) Dec 16, 2011
Jain plans to make billions mining the moon for precious resources."


Pie in the sky?
visual
3 / 5 (2) Dec 16, 2011
A hovercraft on the moon tops it all. How would that work exactly?
Nanobanano
4 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2011
A hovercraft on the moon tops it all. How would that work exactly?


I noticed that too, but I think tht is just a bad choice of words.

I'd be interested to see how a "hovercraft" works in a vaccuum, because it should pretty much do nothing at all.

Cans of compressed air or liquified air would be too expensive and more trouble than they're worth, not to mention hazardous.

I assume it's rocket powered.

Either way, that would be TERRIBLY inefficient, BTW...

Wheels or treads are obviously the way to go, unless these guys have discovered some sort of anti-gravity.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2011
We have to establish some parameters if we are going to successfully exploit the moon's resources. First of all, there will be no hovering of any kind on the moon. That burns up the dust and releases the Helium-3 that is in there, not to mention just stirring up a lot of dust. Helium-3 is the single most valuable resource on the moon. It is foolish to think of going there to mine anything else.
axemaster
1 / 5 (2) Dec 16, 2011
Let's not mine the Moon please. I like being able to look up and see it pristine and untouched. Do we really have to ruin it on top of everything else?
WhiteJim
3.3 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2011
on the moon the thing that will make the most sense is a moon-elevator to lower and raise things from the surface. To do the same on earth is difficult because we have an atmosphere... on the moon without an atmosphere and with much less gravity it will be easier to make a functional ellevator device to get down to and up from the moon once in orbit. a geo-orbit at the moom loctaion with a fixed wire tied to the surface. Can probably make this like a harpoon rocket fire into the moon from moon orbit to anchor the guidewire in place.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Dec 17, 2011
Wow, apparently, having endless finances leads to a decrease in cognitive ability.

...Is this a real article, or are you guys playing a joke on me ?
signoftimes
2 / 5 (2) Dec 17, 2011
I have an idea. Invest $70M dollars in my idea. Ill spend most of it on my idea, but I'll pay myself $3M over the next 3 years. If it doesn't work out, it's ok, I am incorporated. I made $3M. It's not unethical for me to take an income. Your money? Well I tried, investments are risky. Better luck next time. Oh, by the way, I have another idea.

Hovercraft working busily on the moon in 5 years my ass.
GDM
not rated yet Dec 18, 2011
The interview in the article is in variance with their website: above the discussion is about a "hover aircraft" which is certainly a poor choice of words. Apollo 11 "hovered" for several seconds using rocket thrusters before finding a safe landing place. The website talks about releasing micro-rovers instead of hovering. I wish them well (they are only 1 team in the Google Lunar Xprize) but I wish all the teams well.
Also, He3 is not the most valuable substance on the Moon - it is ice, which can provide fuel, air and water. The resources on the moon as determined by the LRO are very similar to those on Earth, but more accessible (no tectonics, rain, etc). You can learn a lot more about the moon with a bit of research.
Ober
2 / 5 (2) Dec 18, 2011
I reckon a kids, rubber space hopper from the 70's would be the best way to get around. Just hold on, start bouncing, and watch out you don't face plant the regolith or go into orbit!!!

As for getting stuff off the moon, instead of a linear accelerator, how about a rotating arm, like a slingshot like mechanism. Solar powered, and if aimed right, could place the cargo into an earth re-entry alignment, or leave it in Low Earth orbit, to be utilised by the ISS, Or used as a weapon to take out Iranian Nuke power plants.

Just some random ramblings!!!!!!!
signoftimes
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2011
We will not see anything beyond minor sampling in the next 20 years, at minimum. There will be no commercial mining on the moon before then, and probably not in 40 years. It is not financially feasible and the technology does not exist to do it for profit. Dollar to weight ratio does not add up and processing stations that will reliably function on the moon do not exist. This is foolery. If the resource values are so high that it is worth pursuing in the near future, no country will have the finances to do it. It does not add up economically.
signoftimes
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2011
The space shuttle was over $630 a pound (2011 dollars) to bring something up into low earth orbit. Low earth orbit is VERY different than to the moon. To develop the technology, get equipment to the moon, mine and process minerals, get them back to earth and successfully landed would be many hundreds of thousands of dollars per pound if not more. The minerals would absolutely have to be refined on the moon. This happening soon? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!
Eric_B
5 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2011
The moon certainly should not be mined for materials that would be used on earth and we are a long way off from creating manufacturing facilities on the moon, let alone mining.

If this guy read physorg he would know that the Japanese discovered massive amounts of rare earth in the mud at the bottom of the pacific off their coast. the chinese do not and will not have a monopoly!
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2011
The moon certainly should not be mined for materials that would be used on earth and we are a long way off from creating manufacturing facilities on the moon, let alone mining.

If this guy read physorg he would know that the Japanese discovered massive amounts of rare earth in the mud at the bottom of the pacific off their coast. the chinese do not and will not have a monopoly!


Ha, I was going to bring that up, didn't want to upset the enviro-tards. It's been known that we can mine nodules off the ocean floor for "rare-Earth " elements like manganese for at least 30 years.
danlgarmstrong
5 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2011
I think establishing robotic mining on the moon is a great idea, but not really for sending metals or minerals back to the Earth. Use the materials to build up a manufacturing base to build infrastructure in space. Solar power stations to beam Energy back to the Earth would be an initial money maker, but I see the robots building living space within the moon, a place for people to go to as being a better long term goal. Imagine mile wide caverns excavated in the lunar bedrock, fill them with air and water and light, then plants and people! That will begin an explosion of creative expansion that will allow resources in space to benefit man on Earth.

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