NASA bets on private companies to exploit moon's resources

Feb 09, 2014 by Jean-Louis Santini

NASA—building on successful partnerships with private companies to resupply the International Space Station—is now looking to private entrepreneurs to help exploit resources on the moon.

In its latest initiative, unveiled in late January, the US space agency is proposing take advantage of NASA's extensive know-how, its engineers and access to its installations to help design and build lunar robots.

But unlike NASA's contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to deliver cargo to the ISS, the moon proposal—dubbed CATALYST (Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown)—would get no US government economic help.

Recent missions in the moon's orbit have revealed evidence of water and other interesting substances on the moon, explained Jason Crusan, director of NASA's advanced exploration systems.

"But to understand the extent and accessibility of these resources, we need to reach the surface and explore up close."

"Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources," permitting both commercial and research activities, he said.

"As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, US industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon," Greg Williams, a top NASA official, added.

In 2013 NASA reached an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to develop commercial sector involvement with the , especially focused on plans to build a lunar base.

Founded by US billionaire Robert Bigelow, the company offers inflatable space modules.

Big money on the moon

These partnerships work "very well in lower orbit," said Bigelow's Michael Gold, referring to the re-supply contracts at the International Space Station.

"There is no reason it won't work just as well on the moon," he told AFP.

"Additionally, in this austere (budget) environment, it only makes sense to leverage private sector investments and capabilities," he said.

"It's not only the best option, but, because of the lack of federal money, the best option available to move forward drastically."

According to Gold, this approach is cheaper than a standard space mission fully paid by the federal government. For a few billion dollars it could even be possible to carry out manned missions to the Moon within a decade, Gold said.

"I think there is a great commercial potential on the moon," he added, citing significant reservers of helium 3, which is rare on Earth and which could be developed into a clean energy fuel ideal for nuclear fusion.

The lunar soil is also rich in coveted rare earth elements: 17 chemicals in the periodic table that are in an increased demand because they are heavily used in everyday electronics.

"There are a vast amount of opportunities for a wide variety of companies not only in America but across the globe," Gold insisted, emphasizing Europe and Japan, as well as the US Congress, are enthusiastic about a return to the moon.

John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said these private partnerships could be "a way of NASA getting back involved with the moon without violating the president's policy that says we as a government we don't go back to the moon."

Logsdon was referring to Obama's 2010 decision to cancel the Constellation program—created by his predecessor, George W. Bush—which planed to return Americans to the by 2020 before embarking for Mars, but which was deemed too costly.

NASA chief Charles Bolden said last year his agency would not take the lead on a manned lunar mission, but wouldn't rule out the possibility of participating in one led by a private company or another country.

Explore further: SpaceX to bid for rights to historic NASA launch pad

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Skepticus
3 / 5 (6) Feb 09, 2014
Ok, now it's the time for high-browsed ambitions, policies and ethics to go down the drain, and let the next East India Companies to run the show of exploitations.
Mayday
5 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2014
I would recommend unmanned robot craft designed specifically for the Lunar cold and dark. Equipped with night-vision or ample lights they would immediately go underground via one of the many cavern openings, avoiding the sun and heat all together. The surface of the Moon has been beaten to death by impacts and radiation for eons. The exciting discoveries are waiting below the surface (equally true for Mars, btw). We can see extensive collapsed cave systems ( lava tubes?) and radar data reveals large hollows. Robots are also expendable and can quickly be sent in large numbers. Let's get on with it already.
MR166
1 / 5 (6) Feb 09, 2014
NASA is just searching for a reason to continue to be funded. They tried to sell us asteroid deflection and then AGW. Now they have this pipe dream. Tritium or H3 is produced in nuclear reactors so there is no need to "go to the moon" for the stuff. It is funny how NASA ran out of their own money and now expects private business to fork out trillions to mine the moon.
Mayday
5 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2014
Design of these robot craft should depart 180 degrees from the conventional wisdom of flimsy upright rovers. Underground geological survey requires a "rough and tumble" design ethic. Think caving & mountain climbing. They should always be power-tethered to a hard point. They should be able to go straight down and straight up. THIS is not rocket science. They should have sensors, sensors, sensors and extensive 3D mapping. And, duh, a power hammer. We are currently exploring our nieghbors like forensic archeologists, afraid to move a particle lest we disturb something precious. We should be exploring like geologists. Yes, a power hammer, like a jack hammer. Now we might get somewhere.
Mayday
5 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2014
It will also be an enormous help to design craft for just one of the Lunar extremes. I vote for the cold. Cold and underground.

Of course, eventually a safe cavern could be filled with inflatable habitats for human tourists. :-)
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2014
It will be interesting to see private companies which thrive on competition, pitted against national concerns such as china.
Of course, eventually a safe cavern could be filled with inflatable habitats for human tourists
Eventually we will be creating our own caverns with nuclear-powered robotic tunnel borers and resource processing factories.
ckid
1 / 5 (6) Feb 09, 2014
"private companies to exploit moon's resources"

Why ???

Are there no resources on Earth?
Is this just another hollow NASA justification, because going to the moon for scientific and exploration reasons are not good enough?
How long until we see a moon-carved corporate logo shining down on us?
AeroSR71
5 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2014
I come from a mining town in Northern Ontario, and I can tell you that this town is most certainly equipped to produce robots that can navigate underground. Actually, their is a new start up here that just recently got a NASA contract to produce a drill and in-situ resource utilization on a rover.
MR166
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2014
There is no question that this could be done. The question is, what could be found, mined, refined and sent back to earth at a profit?

Nothing that I know of is that valuable. At some point in time economics will always determine what is possible.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 09, 2014
There is no question that this could be done. The question is, what could be found, mined, refined and sent back to earth at a profit?

Nothing that I know of is that valuable. At some point in time economics will always determine what is possible.
He3... To assign an economic value, suppose we assume He3 would replace the fuels the United States currently buys to generate electricity. We still have all those power generating plants and distribution network, so we can't use how much we pay for electricity. As a replacement for that fuel, that 25-tonne load of He3 would worth on the order of $75 billion today, or $3 billion per tonne"
http://www.isset...._ch3.htm

-But material can be processed on the moon and shot into orbit using mass drivers for a fraction of what it currently costs to lift it from the earths surface. Fuel, construction materials, O2 and other valuable stuff can be used in space.
ckid
3 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2014
TheGhostofOtto1923 - You would probably enjoy the movie "Moon".

But there presently is no need for He3. Not until fusion power becomes a reality. At a minimun that still might be 50 years out.
Lex Talonis
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2014
The issue of exploiting all the green cheese is one issue.

The metal munching mice - has yet to be dealt with.

TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2014
There is no question that this could be done. The question is, what could be found, mined, refined and sent back to earth at a profit?

The economic conjuncture is slowly turning from space exploration, to space exploitation. I agree that it would not be viable to create any product on the moon to be used on earth. But it would certainly be cost-effective to create space technologies there. Do not forget that going from earth to low earth orbit is the most energy intensive step of going anywhere else in the solar system.
ubavontuba
not rated yet Feb 10, 2014
I would recommend unmanned robot craft designed specifically for the Lunar cold and dark. Equipped with night-vision or ample lights they would immediately go underground via one of the many cavern openings, avoiding the sun and heat all together. The surface of the Moon has been beaten to death by impacts and radiation for eons. The exciting discoveries are waiting below the surface (equally true for Mars, btw). We can see extensive collapsed cave systems ( lava tubes?) and radar data reveals large hollows. Robots are also expendable and can quickly be sent in large numbers. Let's get on with it already.
Mining and construction drones, operated from Earth, would be ideal.

antialias_physorg
3.3 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2014
And, duh, a power hammer. We are currently exploring our nieghbors like forensic archeologists, afraid to move a particle lest we disturb something precious.

Heavy machinery (like jackhammers) need servicing very frequently. On the Moon or Mars anything that needs servicing frequently is just so much, very expensive junk. This is why rovers currently try to go for a 'touchless' approach (lasers, remote spectrometers, etc. ). 'Rough and tumble' is all fine and dandy - but we're currently not capable of producing the kinds of robots that stay operational under hard labor conditions in those kinds of environments AND are lightweight enough to make it economically feasible to get them there. That still needs a bit of development.
MR166
1 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2014
Yup, this blurb is just a little NASA pr that was created to justify more funding.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2014
There is no question that this could be done. The question is, what could be found, mined, refined and sent back to earth at a profit?

Nothing that I know of is that valuable. At some point in time economics will always determine what is possible


Good point, I agree. Following that thought to conclusion probably means that we won't see large scale lunar exploitation until there are self-sustaining human habitats there. Then the equation flips around, since it would be cheaper for those people to make their own things rather than import them from Earth. It would be an economy of survival and needs rather than one of riches (at least at the biginning). It wouldn't be much different than isolated colonies in past times here on Earth. The first people will be scientists, then maybe tourists, then people who provide services to the others, such as an Oxygen manufacturer, or water purifier service, or maybe lunar transport/delivery? It's gotta be self-sustaining or no-go though.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2014
There is no question that this could be done. The question is, what could be found, mined, refined and sent back to earth at a profit?

Nothing that I know of is that valuable. At some point in time economics will always determine what is possible.

Good point, I agree. Following that thought to conclusion probably means that we won't see large scale lunar exploitation until there are self-sustaining human habitats there. Then the equation flips around, since it would be cheaper for those people to make their own things rather than import them from Earth. It would be an economy of survival and needs rather than one of riches (at least at the biginning). It wouldn't be much different than isolated colonies in past times here on Earth. The first people will be scientists, then maybe tourists, then people who provide services to the others, such as an Oxygen manufacturer, or water purifier service, or maybe lunar transport/delivery? It's gotta be self-sustaining or no-go though.

Personally I would go with highly dextrous humanoid robots. They would be individually controlled by humans, here on earth, through a wearable device. Since there is a 2 seconds delay, due to reference frame differential, a continuous simulation with delayed feedback correction would be needed. It would be a compromise but it would certainly be better than exposing people to spatial environment.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2014
Heavy machinery (like jackhammers) need servicing very frequently.
This of course presupposes that machinery which does not need frequent servicing, cannot be designed, or be serviced robotically. I think this is somewhat shortsighted dont you?

Heavy machinery which needs frequent servicing is cheaper, and servicing is readily available. This is why the machines we are familiar with need frequent servicing. But autonomous, low maintenance machines are in use. Many examples can be found in the military.
http://www.submep...0III.pdf

-Redundancy and modularity will be aspects of lunar construction and production equipment.
http://www.asce.o...69811325
http://news.natio...ase.html
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2014
But there presently is no need for He3
He3 is easier to fuse and it is an aneutronic reaction. Neutrons cause the most damage in nucllear reactors. The product is protons which can be converted directly to electricity. If an adequate supply of He3 could be guaranteed then research could be redirected and we could possibly have fusion reactors much sooner.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2014
It would be a compromise but it would certainly be better than exposing people to spatial environment


Sure, but you're fogetting one thing: People will want to be there.

I picture a handful of small commercial bases, with staff paid by the corporation, offering facilities and services for rent to anyone who has the money. Then you might see University science missions funded by grants, and governments renting lab space. Once that gets started, a service economy would develop rather quickly, and that would lead to self-sufficiency at the speed dictated by economic forces (if it's cheaper to make it there, someone will make it there).

Shipping high value items back to Earth won't be as expensive as you might think either. There will be supply ships headed to the moon fully loaded, with space available for cargo on the return trip. It probably wouldn't be profitable, but it could defer some of the cost of the supply runs.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2014
Since there is a 2 seconds delay, due to reference frame differential, a continuous simulation with delayed feedback correction

2 seconds is a bit long for haptic feedback. When I worked on haptic interactions another researcher recounted an experiment: The goal was to find out whether one could do cooperative, remote operations. 2 teams with haptic devices were located within the US several hundred kilometers apart and worked together on a 'virtual spleen'. Works OK up to a certain distance, but as soon as you jump nets the lag (beyond 0.1s) becomes noticeable/jarring.
In that case one of the interfaces wasn't calibrated in line with the other one, and an inadvertent action of one operator almost broke the arm of the other operator.

BTW: Smooth haptic feedback requires 800-1000 updates per second. Much more demanding than smooth visual feedback (18-24fps). The saving grace is that you need much less 'pixels' (a full body suit would still require hundreds)
GSwift7
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2014
This of course presupposes that machinery which does not need frequent servicing, cannot be designed, or be serviced robotically. I think this is somewhat shortsighted dont you?


The article is talking about near term plans, not the distant future, so we're really only talking about the next few decades here. In 20+ years, this will be an entirely different discussion. There's almost no point in talking about things like fusion in regard to lunar exploration at this time.

A simple human base, similar in purpose to the ISS, is reasonable. Partnership with private companies to provide access is also reasonable in the very near future. As soon as SpaceX gets the Falcon Heavy ready, it won't be long before they start lunar missions. You KNOW that Elon Musk wants to do it. This NASA strategy decision might even have been made with the Falcon Heavy in mind.
MR166
not rated yet Feb 11, 2014
Corporations will and should not fund programs that do not have a clear path to profitability!!!! That is not their purpose. They can set aside a SMALL a amount of their research budget for projects that have little chance of success but if they do more than that they will fail and have to fire many employees in order to stay in business. If a wealthy individual wishes to spend his fortune on forward thinking projects God bless him but that is not the purpose of corporations. Corporations are negligent if they spend more than a slight bit of their profits on projects that do not have a realistic chance of success.
TechnoCreed
not rated yet Feb 11, 2014
It would be a compromise but it would certainly be better than exposing people to spatial environment.

Sure, but you're fogetting one thing: People will want to be there.

I picture a handful of small commercial bases, with staff paid by the corporation, offering facilities and services for rent to anyone who has the money. Then you might see University science missions funded by grants, and governments renting lab space. Once that gets started, a service economy would develop rather quickly, and that would lead to self-sufficiency at the speed dictated by economic forces (if it's cheaper to make it there, someone will make it there).

Shipping high value items back to Earth won't be as expensive as you might think either. There will be supply ships headed to the moon fully loaded, with space available for cargo on the return trip. It probably wouldn't be profitable, but it could defer some of the cost of the supply runs.

I checked the data for the Apollo missions. I discarded Apollo 10, 12 and 14; the higher dosimetry measurements were probably caused by momentary solar activity. So it is a pretty conservative assessment, and it accounts for a minimum of 90 mSv/year. It is pretty much consistent, although slightly higher than the ISS's radiation environment (do not forget that the ISS is shielded by the magnetosphere). I am pretty sure that everybody will run to their opportunity to battle cancer, just for the heck!
http://www.world-...Effects/
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2014
The article is talking about near term plans, not the distant future, so we're really only talking about the next few decades here. In 20+ years, this will be an entirely different discussion. There's almost no point in talking about things like fusion in regard to lunar exploration at this time
Large projects require significant design and planning time. The LHC required 20+ years of it. Are you saying that talking about finding the higgs was premature back then?

The fact that NASA, ESA, china and others are conceiving future missions around finding and mining this material proves you wrong.
A simple human base, similar in purpose to the ISS, is reasonable
Why put humans on the surface when robots can do everything they can do and more?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2014
You KNOW that Elon Musk wants to do it.
Well offhand I dont know whether musk wants to go to the moon or not, but lets find out.

"Eventually, though, Musk has much bigger goals. He intends to go to Mars. When I asked him if he was g0ing to stop off at the Moon first, he told me that it's not a priority. "I'm okay with going to the moon, but we've seen that movie before and remakes are never as good... Going to Mars isn't a lark for Musk, either. He's personally invested in space travel."

-Well then g. I guess this means youre wrong (again).
TechnoCreed
not rated yet Feb 11, 2014
2 seconds is a bit long for haptic feedback. When I worked on haptic interactions another researcher recounted an experiment: The goal was to find out whether one could do cooperative, remote operations. 2 teams with haptic devices were located within the US several hundred kilometers apart and worked together on a 'virtual spleen'. Works OK up to a certain distance, but as soon as you jump nets the lag (beyond 0.1s) becomes noticeable/jarring.
In that case one of the interfaces wasn't calibrated in line with the other one, and an inadvertent action of one operator almost broke the arm of the other operator.

BTW: Smooth haptic feedback requires 800-1000 updates per second. Much more demanding than smooth visual feedback (18-24fps). The saving grace is that you need much less 'pixels' (a full body suit would still require hundreds)

The kind of simulation that I am talking about would simulate haptic too. The feedback would only be a delayed correction. I do realise that it would require an extensive data exchange rate, but we are talking about future technology here. As far as fortuitous events, who cares since there would not be any humans directly involved.
T1154
3 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2014
I find the confidence in there being a wealth of material suitable for commercial exploitation on the Moon difficult to understand ,bearing in mind how little surface prospecting there has been to date, and reflecting on how much prospecting and testing seems to be undertaken on Earth,before serious exploitation of a potentially minable source is begun . Is this level of confidence actually merited? Much more time appears to have been spent examining Mars.and to date knowledge of what kind of materials exist there does not appear to have evoked much enthusiasm,much less any firm view as to whether the planet might have supported life at one time or could in the future,Yet serious planning for human's to remain on the surface with the intent to colonise it, seems to be in progress, Is this level of confidence also justified?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2014
I find the confidence in there being a wealth of material suitable for commercial exploitation on the Moon difficult to understand ,bearing in mind how little surface prospecting there has been to date
Well from your comment it is clear that you are not familiar with just how much they DO know about moon resources. For instance they know there is gigatons of water all over the place. And there is that He3. And there is certainly a lot of construction material waiting to be processed and shot into orbit with mass drivers.

Heres a more detailed article for your education:
http://mining.abo...pped.htm
MR166
5 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2014
If unmanned robotic mining were economically feasible we would be doing more of it here on earth. But its not and there is absolutely no proof that it could be cost or energy effective on the moon. If we ever develop fusion, deuterium will be the fuel of choice due to it's availability. Yes, it is not as ideal as He3 but costs and EROEI will rule in the end.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2014
If unmanned robotic mining were economically feasible we would be doing more of it here on earth. But its not
Well that's incredibly shortsighted. Robotics is just starting to take off.

"This Autonomous Hauling System... is a series of robotic trucks that load, haul, and dump ore and waste rock at open pit mines. Imagine Google's self-driving cars, except gigantic: each 210-metric-ton truck is 27 feet wide and 51 feet long, and can carry 320 metric tons."

""I currently equate what was happening in the copper sector then, to what is currently impacting South Africa's hard-rock mining now, and what we can do is resort to a robotic mining method," McGill told Mining Weekly Online"
and there is absolutely no proof that it could be cost or energy effective on the moon. If we ever develop fusion, deuterium will be the fuel of choice due to it's availability.
Soon enough He3 will be readily available and cheap and IT will be the fuel of choice.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2014
More on robotic mining:

"Information from Rio Tinto:
Resolution Copper estimates that an average of 1,400 employees and contractors will be employed full- time on the project (and support an additional 2,300 indirect and induced jobs) over the 40-year life of the mine. This figure accounts already for the advanced technologies and automated equipment incorporated in the mine's design. Furthermore, all of these jobs, including any remote operators, will be located locally on the mine property."

"The Canadian company Nautilus Minerals is the leader in marine mineral exploration. Nautilus Minerals has developed robotic technology for deep-sea mining in collaboration with the French company Technip. The company is planning to open the first deep-water mine in 2015. The Solwara 1 mine will be located 1600 metres below sea level. The company has found large deposits of copper and gold there."