As most of you probably know, I’m following the Google Lunar X PRIZE pretty closely.
The prize is supposed to catalyze an industry by getting at least one organization to have a workable rover or hopper system.
I’ve thought a lot about this competition but we always talk about technical details of the race, and not the purpose of the race. What really matters is what happens because of the race.
My question for today is:
If you could purchase landing, rover and hopper services from a private company on the moon… what business would you build there?
In-Situ Resource Extraction and Processing, probably targeting Oxygen, Aluminum, Titanium, and Silicon. Basically, mining, refinement and smelting. Initially on a tiny scale as a demonstration of capabilities and market exploration.
First of all, lets put a few more constraints on the amount of hardware that can be delivered and its potential capabilities. For example, let’s assume that, for the near term, only robotic assets will be delivered, and they will not need ascent capabilities. Let’s also assume that only a couple of tons of equipment can be delivered with a single flight (if even that). What can you do with such equipment that might be of commercial value?
First thing that comes to mind is surveying, mineral assaying, and/or prospecting. The more information we have about the lunar environment, and the potential available resources, the more compelling a business case one can make to investors for additional follow on missions – either with humans or more robots.
Next thing that comes to mind is surface preparation. Early missions may just move dirt, rocks, dig trenches, prepare landing areas, etc. Subsequent missions could add equipment for manufacturing simple building material, like bricks made from regolith and baked by concentrated solar power. This is very early ISRU, and one could easily imagine a minor modification to the equipment which would allow it to capture water and/or oxygen as it bakes the bricks.
Once you have a compelling reason to go and sufficiently detailed information about the area (the surveying missions), and you have some basic building materials and possibly other vital resources (the ISRU missions), then you can possibly make the business case for someone to pony up the money for a manned mission, or at the very least, a reusable lander stage that would allow you to export the water and/or oxygen that you’ve been collecting.
Here’s another one for you. Build an electromagnetic trap for harvesting hydrogen from the solar wind. Combine this with an apparatus for baking oxygen of of the soil, and voila. You have yourself a water manufacturing plant that does not require any prospecting for water deposits or sifting through large amounts of mostly arid regolith for significant quantities of water.