November 2011

Shooting for the moon

The business case for heading into space

By G. Lanktree

A 1.5-metre-tall, 72.5-kilogram robot is set to revisit an Apollo landing site in the near future. Roving among the craters, collecting rock samples and sniffing for water, the bot will broadcast a steady stream of 3D high-definition video back to eager eyes on Earth.

This is the first in of a string of Moon visits being launched by the budding commercial space industry. And word is that they are looking for Canada’s mining industry to hitch a ride.

“Already we’ve been awarded a contract by NASA to develop a prototype rover to mine for ice and methane ice on the Moon,” says David Gump, president of Astrobotic Technology Inc., a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. The company specializes in delivering payloads to the lunar surface and anticipates an April 2014 date for putting NASA’s rover on the Moon. “We would very much like to engage with the mining industry to see if they’d like to turn this project into something more commercial,” he adds.

Astrobotic is one of two front-runners among 26 teams now shooting for the Moon and a portion of the $30 million purse put up by Google’s Lunar X Prize – a competition to become the first private venture to put a lander on the Moon and explore 500 metres with a rover by 2015. Expectations of what the teams will find range from abundant water and ice to valuable platinum group and rare-earth metals, to helium-3, nickel and iron, which could serve as building blocks for lunar habitats and further mining ventures.

“At this point, no one has gone to do the prospecting,” says Gump, who points out that the solar system’s nickel-iron asteroids contain large amounts of platinum group metals. If these asteroids have impacted the Moon at a low enough speed, he reasons, the craters will hold a good portion of those same minerals. Ultimately, Gump says, the destination will be dictated by the interests of those who commission a trip to the Moon.

“We need to find ways to quickly look around using a rover or lander to find out where the best targets for taking samples are,” he says. “We could really use mining industry expertise and techniques for prospecting. The information and approaches that we have now are all coming from planetary scientists.”

A Moon-based marketplace

Gump says Astrobotic is open to joint ventures. In one scenario, which he calls “an attractive way to share the cost,” NASA would pay for the first few drill holes and core samples collected on the Moon and a mining company could pay for subsequent drilling.

“A joint venture would be very appropriate,” agrees Dale Boucher, senior director of product development at NORCAT, a Canadian mining non-profit that works as an economic engine for the industry, in part by developing new technologies. “Canadian mining companies are in a very good position to lead the pack,” he says, because of their internationally renowned expertise in every step of the mining cycle, long-term backing and management that understands how much a project costs, how much time it will take and how to find the end market.

“But because of the cost, it doesn’t make sense to mine on the Moon and bring minerals back to Earth,” Boucher says. “What has happened in the past year or two, however, is that there’s now a burgeoning market for customers right on the Moon.”

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