Dec '11/Jan '12

Gas stations in space

Shackleton Energy plans to convert the Moon’s water supply to rocket fuel

By A. Lopez-Pacheco

Shackleton Energy proposes to mine water on the moon, convert it to rocket fuel, and sell it to spacecraft in low Earth orbit. 

At first, the idea of mining lunar ice to manufacture rocket propellant seems a bit out of this world. It is as improbable, perhaps, as walking on the Moon might have seemed to the average person a decade before Neil Armstrong did so with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

From the perspective of Shackleton Energy Company (SEC), the Texas-based company that plans to begin mining lunar ice by 2020, the only real impediment to launching its lunar mining operations is finding enough forward-thinking investors to make it possible. The company argues that lunar explorations by international space programs, including NASA’s 2009 LRO/LCROSS probes, have confirmed there is water ice in the Moon’s craters – and plenty of it. “From a physics standpoint, everything is in place for us to do the mission,” says Dale Tietz, SEC’s president and CEO. “The technology for turning water into rocket propellant has been around for decades, although we have to space qualify this technology so that it will operate in orbit and on the Moon’s surface, especially in very hostile, dark, cold conditions. But that’s all a relatively straightforward engineering challenge.”

While the specifics of how the water will be mined will depend on the findings of SEC’s manned and unmanned exploration activities on the Moon, the most likely scenario will be that automated equipment will strip mine the ice-laden top layer of dirt and rocks in the lunar craters. The water will then be extracted by heating the crushed rock using power from the sun beamed from the crater rims. “We’ll take the water, load it into transport vehicles and fly it to low Earth orbit (LEO), where the water will be loaded onto a fuel processing facility, turned into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen, and then into liquid hydrogen and oxygen,” says Tietz. “These rocket propellants then will be stored in very large cryogenic containers to fuel customers’ space vehicles. The beauty of this process is that it’s ultra clean, with no pollutants, involving minimal processing complexity. After water extraction, we’ll return the leftover rock debris to the craters, so there’s virtually no environmental impact to the crater as a result of the mining.”

Earth’s rising fuel costs affect space as well

The company has a profitable business model, says Tietz, because it is built on a solution to a common problem. One of space travel’s greatest challenges has always been its astronomical cost, much of which is due to the Earth’s gravity and punishing atmosphere. To escape our planet’s pull, rockets use a tremendous amount of expensive propellants and tankage. SEC’s models indicate that their business will not only open up space travel by making it dramatically more affordable, but also eventually provide investors with a significant return on investment.

“One litre of water in orbit is worth something in the order of $10,000,” says Greg Baiden, a professor of engineering at Laurentian University and CEO of Penguin Automated Systems, which will work with SEC to develop the automated equipment to mine the lunar water. “To understand the cost of getting from Earth to orbit, think of the size of the NASA Saturn V rockets compared to what the astronauts returned to Earth in.”

In contrast to launching from the Earth, it takes very little fuel to lift off the Moon. With SEC service stations in LEO, rockets leaving this planet would only need enough fuel to reach the stations, where they would “gas up” for the rest of their journey.

“With our concept, there is at least a 20 to one potential cost savings of propellant mined from lunar ice and sold in LEO compared to launching a rocket with propellant from Earth,” says Tietz. “We won’t sell it at 20 to one, but it shows you how much profitability is possible, especially if international demand for the fuels grows exponentially. Our concept is to become the major enabler of growing the new space economy in ways we can hardly imagine,” he adds.

Such a dramatic cut to fuel costs, says Baiden, will open up opportunities not just for scientific space exploration, but also for ventures by other mining companies and industries. Scientists believe the Moon is rich with resources, including platinum group metals, mercury, gold, silver and Helium-3, which is rare on Earth, but is essential for yet-to-be-developed nuclear fusion reactors. “There’s also the potential for solar power stations being built on the Moon,” says Baiden. “The future of our terrestrial energy systems on Earth may well depend on the Moon.”

Industry needs to get things moving

“In Columbus’ day, the government – the Queen of Spain – built the sailing ships to explore the New World,” says Baiden. “But once the Queen had financed the first exploration missions, an explosion of commerce followed, which provided a great ROI.” Development in space, Baiden believes, will need to go through the same process. “NASA built ships, too; but in this case, the mining industry could be the one that plays the pivotal role in financing space exploration, and it’s a role the industry has played all along in human exploration,” he adds.

And it is a role not many others are rushing to fill. “We don’t believe there are any competitors right now on the scale we’re suggesting,” says Tietz. “Most companies looking at mining on the Moon depend on collaboration with government organizations like NASA. They talk about mining, but right now it’s all on a very small scale. We made a decision years ago that the only way to do business is privately, as an industrial venture, not sponsored or funded by government. Instead, it will be sponsored by very wealthy individuals or syndications. We think we can accomplish our goals and be open for business for about $25 billion.”

And they think they can do it by 2020, depending on whether or not they raise initial funds for their program within the next year. “If you don’t set a target date, then you’re like everyone else and you study things to death and never produce a product,” says Tietz.

Baiden says alternative investors may offer more than traditional banks would for projects like SEC’s. “I’m not sure how enamored institutional investors would be with this, but I’ve seen institutional investors not get excited about good mining projects as well,” he says. For now, SEC is looking to billionaires and pioneers, as well as companies in the energy and mining sectors, which are more familiar with a culture of long-term investments.

“It’s like a giant flywheel: a whole lot of people have to put their shoulders in just to get it to turn a fraction of an inch, but after a while, when enough people get in, it starts to move,” explains Baiden. “Eventually, it takes on a life of its own. If I can get that flywheel moving, then I’m pretty interested in that.”

Who owns the Moon?

If Shackleton Energy Company is successful in establishing its water mine on the Moon, it will not need a mining permit, nor will it own any land. That is because all lunar mining operations fall under The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which provides the basic framework for international space law. But that’s all it is, a very basic framework.

One of the principles of the treaty is that the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon, must be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and mankind.

“How you do that has never been tested before or defined to a very specific degree, which is actually very good for a commercial enterprise such as ours,” says Tietz. “It will all have to be worked out in the future, but we are convinced, along with others, including space law experts on our team we’ve been working with for years, that there’s nothing that prohibits us from going forward and launching from the Earth to the Moon and beginning operations. The path forward is very clear and industry must lead the way responsibly. This is possibly the world’s next major mining and energy play off Earth.”

As exploration and development on the Moon begins and grows, however, most, including Tietz, expect the world will return to the table to begin negotiating more detailed guidelines and laws to support subsequent scaling of the space-based economy.

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