Robotic landers could start mining the moon as early as 2020

A permanent robotic mining outpost on the moon could be on the cards as early as 2020. The Florida-based company Moon Express has raised over $45 million in funding for three expeditions that will culminate in a mission to mine moon rocks and return them to Earth.

Because the laws governing usage of resources in space are vague, a profit-driven mission of this kind could cause international controversy. “It’s something that is being discussed internationally now, but there is no agreed-upon answer, and I’m not sure there’s going to be,” says Henry Hertzfeld at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

Moon Express was founded in 2010 with the aim of winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $20 million award for the first privately funded vehicle to land on the moon. The launch deadline is the end of 2017, so Moon Express hopes to launch Lunar Scout, its first planned expedition, this year.

The engines for the company’s landers have been built and are being tested, but other parts are still being developed and manufactured. The Electron rocket, made by private spaceflight company Rocket Lab, is slated to carry Lunar Scout but has never yet reached orbit.

“We have a lot to do in a very short time frame, and Rocket Lab has a lot to do in a very short time frame,” Moon Express chief executive Bob Richards told a press conference yesterday.

Never mind the prize

Even if the launch doesn’t happen by the end of the year, Richards said the mission will go ahead – the prize money is not an absolute requirement.

That debut Lunar Scout mission will carry a small telescope and a laser array to the moon’s surface. In 2019, the company plans to land a second craft at the moon’s south pole, where it can prospect for water and any potentially useful minerals.

The aptly named third expedition, Harvest Moon, would begin Moon Express’s mining operation. If all goes to plan, this first commercial mission to return moon rocks to Earth will launch in 2020. The lander may have the capability to send a capsule full of samples back to Earth (illustrated below) while it remains on the moon to continue mining.

Artist's impression of sample return capsule

Those lunar samples would be the first to return to the US since 1972. Some of them will be used for scientific research, but others could be sold to collectors or other private companies. “We look forward opening up the opportunity for everyone to have lunar rocks,” Richards said.

Lunar samples from all of the prior US missions belong to the government. The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015 encourages commercial exploitation of resources in space, as long as they’re not alive. That means that if Moon Express finds aliens, it can’t keep them, but minerals and water are fair game.

Most other nations don’t have such clear laws, though. They rely on the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which vaguely states that the exploration of outer space and celestial bodies should be beneficial to everyone. Many people interpret the treaty to mean that space, including the moon, is common heritage that should remain unsullied by commercial interests.

“What becomes a hang-up is the profits that could be made by a private company,” says Hertzfeld. “Internationally, not everybody’s going to be happy with that. But can they do anything about it? Probably not.”

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