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posted by Fnord666 on Thursday July 13 2017, @07:11PM   Printer-friendly
from the a-rocky-endeavor dept.

Arthur T Knackerbracket has found the following story:

After several years of secrecy, a company called Moon Express revealed the scope of its ambitions on Wednesday. And they are considerable. The privately held company released plans for a single, modular spacecraft that can be combined to form successively larger and more capable vehicles. Ultimately the company plans to establish a lunar outpost in 2020 and set up commercial operations on the Moon.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Moon Express says it is self-funded to begin bringing kilograms of lunar rocks back to Earth within about three years. "We absolutely intend to make these samples available globally for scientific research, and make them available to collectors as well," said Bob Richards, one of the company's founders, in an interview with Ars.

Moon Express was founded in 2010 to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which offered $20 million to the first privately funded team that lands a vehicle on the Moon, has it travel at least 500 meters, and transmits back high-definition images and video. The deadline for that prize is the end of 2017. While Moon Express says it has an outside chance to still claim the prize, its commercial ambitions now far exceed a simple, one-off lander.

At the center of the company's architecture is the the single stage MX-1 spacecraft that can deliver up to 30kg to the lunar surface. This vehicle is similar in size and shape to the R2-D2 droid from Star Wars, but a little bigger, Richards said. Launched inside a conventional rocket payload fairing, the MX-1 is powered by a single PECO rocket engine.

[...] The proposed hardware opens up a suite of missions on the lunar surface, three of which Moon Express said it has funding to support. The company's initial mission is "Lunar Scout," which seeks to become the first commercial voyage to the Moon. This will carry several payloads, including the International Lunar Observatory, "MoonLight" by the INFN National Laboratories of Frascati and the University of Maryland, and a Celestis memorial flight. This mission will also attempt to win the lunar XPRIZE.

The company's second proposed flight, the "Lunar Outpost" expedition, will seek to establish a lunar research outpost at the South Pole of the Moon. NASA and others are highly interested in the potential to turn water ice in shadowed lunar craters into rocket propellant. This lander will prospect for water and useful minerals, Richards said.

The third flight, "Harvest Moon", would take place by 2020 and will attempt to return a few kilograms of material from the surface of the Moon. In this scenario, a single MX spacecraft would serve as an ascent vehicle from the lunar surface, and re-enter Earth's atmosphere to land in the ocean or on land. "The sample return mission is justifiable for commercial purposes, we are expecting to self fund that," Richards said.

How much are lunar rocks worth? Quite a lot. NASA has never sold any of the 842 pounds of lunar material its six Apollo missions returned from the Moon. However, in 1970, the Soviet Union launched the robotic Luna 16 mission, which succeeded in returning 101 grams of material from the surface of the Moon. A fraction of this material made it to the open market.

In 1993, Sotheby's auctioned off 0.2 grams of these Soviet rocks in three holders (each with a magnifying glass to see the specks of lunar dust). This auction raised $442,500 in total, and is the only data point we have for the value of material returned directly to Earth from the Moon, said Robert Pearlman editor of the space history site

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  • (Score: 2) by kaszz on Thursday July 13 2017, @11:56PM (2 children)

    by kaszz (4211) on Thursday July 13 2017, @11:56PM (#538901) Journal

    Helium-3 at a lower than Earth price for research purposes like the PolyWell would make sense. The question is if they can get the price lower than the 2017 commercial price at 12.3 million US$/kg* [].
    (taking into account the extra neutron vs ordinary Helium on density)

    Helium-3 is currently sourced from nuclear weapons Tritium and from DoE nuclear reactors using Lithium-6 (via Tritium). The price seems to deter some fusion research so there's benefits to be had if the price can be lowered.

    So transport to moon 62M US$ + vehicle 50M US$ + return pod and launch 10M US$ ..? = 122M US$
    * []
    Ie the trip needs to extract 9.9 kg He-3 to break even.

    At a rate of 1e-8 to 2e-8 parts [] rock that means digging through approximately one million tons of rock. It may take some time..

    The regolith [] has a density at approximately 1350 kg/m³ so a rock cube of 90 x 90 x 90 meters has to be dug through before the investors gets tired, ie interest on investment. And the buyers on the market is medical lung imaging, cryogenics and fusion research..

    Another source [] specify the extraction price to 800 000 US$/kg. So there is a 15 times price reduction to be had. The killer end usage is of course power generation which can't be proven until there is plenty of He-3 to experiment with and without proven reactors there isn't enough will to invest in getting it to Earth and so on.

    That any extraction mission needs to dig through 1e8 times more mass of regolith than the mass of He-3 is likely what makes or breaks it. One strategy to handle this is to extract Titanium and Aluminum at the same time. Titanium is hard to get on Earth (asfaik) and Aluminum is expensive to purify. But Moon has high vacuum naturally and sunlight to melt metals. So extraction can be comparable cheaper and of higher quality with almost no environmental side effects.

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  • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Friday July 14 2017, @12:11AM (1 child)

    by bob_super (1357) on Friday July 14 2017, @12:11AM (#538908)

    Did I miss the part of the math which takes into account designing/shipping/maintaining the tools used to extract and refine a million tons of rock?
    It might weigh a lot less than on Earth, but so are the usual gravity-anchored extraction machines.

    Also, for our little US comrades, could you redo that math in acre-feet, barrels and football-fields-per-fortnight?

    • (Score: 2) by kaszz on Friday July 14 2017, @12:27AM

      by kaszz (4211) on Friday July 14 2017, @12:27AM (#538916) Journal

      "vehicle 50M US$" is your answer. Very rough estimate.

      I think the limitations is that a larger and more expensive machine can extract faster and at a lower per mass price. But that increase the investment requirement. A smaller machine will need more time etc but cost less upfront. Break even and optimization is likely the keywords here. And of course how much money you got.

      If you got some sand nearby, you can probably get a feel for the difficulty by making a machine extract silicon for a year without any human service. Of course on the moon there will be no weather and instead high vacuum. Relentless sun heat and ice cold weeks etc. So conditions differ but it provide some ballpark difficulty analog.