Moon Express is one of only two teams in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition with a verified launch contract for its 2017 lunar mission. In October 2015, Moon Express announced that it had signed the worlds’ first multi-mission launch contract with Rocket Lab USA for 3 lunar missions between 2017 and 2020.
Moon Express sees the moon as critical for humanity to become a multi-world species, and that our sister world, the Moon, is an eighth continent holding vast resources than can help us enrich and secure our future.
MoonEx had been planning to place the International Lunar Observatory (ILO) on the Moon as early as 2018. The plan calls for placement of both a 2 meters (6 ft 7 in) radio telescope as well as an optical telescope at the South Pole of the Moon.
Rick Tumlinson, chairman of Deep Space Industries, plans to land its first prospector on an asteroid by 2020.
Deep Space Industries will use small scouts to explore and study prospective targets. A larger robot will land on high value asteroids to mine and process material. It will use solar power to evaporate and capture water from the sample.
“Water, we believe, is relatively easy to harvest from asteroid materials,” said Tumlinson.
By 2025 they could be producing serious quantities of resources.
Deep Space Industries and the University of Tennessee were awarded NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program funding for developing technology to slow spacecraft carrying asteroid resources as they return to Earth’s orbit.
The purpose of asteroid mining is to collect fuel and building materials harvested from near Earth asteroids and provide them to commercial and government missions. One major challenge to making asteroid mining a reality is slowing down the returning mining spacecraft as they approach Earth. Returning from distant destinations, these spacecraft will be traveling at high speeds, so slowing them down enough to slip into orbit is quite difficult.
Current braking methods call for the returning asteroid mining spacecraft to expend a great deal of propellant to slow itself down enough to achieve low Earth orbit insertion. However, propellant is heavy and valuable, so if another way of slowing the spacecraft could be devised, it would significantly help the economics of asteroid mining missions.
The NASA grant will research the manufacturing of an aerobrake system from the asteroid’s regolith (soil) collected from mining operations. The idea is that the fully laden asteroid mining spacecraft will use the collected material to manufacture a braking system during its journey back to Earth’s orbit. The aerobrake system would act as a large heat shield that would allow the spacecraft to pass through Earth’s atmosphere, creating enough drag to slow down the payload without using propellant.
“Using aerobrakes instead of propellant will expand by 30 to 100 times the number of asteroids where water and other supplies can be affordably delivered to markets in Earth orbit,” said Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at DSI. “In the near future,” explains Lewis, “asteroid resources will support space stations, expeditions to the Moon and Mars, and the transfer of payloads from low orbit to geosynchronous orbit by space-based tugs refueled with asteroid propellant.”
Planetary Resources is also focused on water.
“You can concentrate that solar energy and heat up the surface of the asteroid and literally bake off the water in the same way you’d bake a clay pot,” says CEO Chris Lewicki.
Both Lewicki and Tumlinson want to supply building materials in space, which could allow for the construction of super-massive floating structures that would be ungainly to launch from Earth.
This was the old L5 colonization vision.
National Space Society has updated analysis of the enormous growth potential of orbital space colonization and near earth settlement. If the single largest asteroid (Ceres) were to be used to build orbital space settlements, the total living area created would be well over a hundred times the land area of the Earth. This is because Ceres is a solid, three dimensional object but orbital space settlements are basically hollow with only air on the inside. Thus, Ceres alone can provide the building materials for uncrowded homes for hundreds of billions of people, at least.