The space race is going private. It’s being driven by ambitions of making a quintillion dollars–yes, you heard that correctly–a quintillion dollars. Over the last 60 years, rockets are faster and safety has increased. Nobody can own the Moon or Mars but new laws allow for mining them. Following the US Commercial Space Act, companies are gearing up to go interplanetary panning. The US law states that companies can mine other worlds and keep the resources. Luxembourg has followed suit with a similar law. It is going to be something like the Gold Rush of the 1850s, prospecting for fortunes in a lawless expanse.
The corporate space race is starting off small. Blue Origins, Space-X, Samsung, and Virgin are warming up by building vast space-based internet services. Thousands of satellites will provide internet services to untapped populations in developing countries. In the words of Elon Musk, “Revenues from these services will pay for the goal of getting to Mars.”
Water is much more common in the Universe than previously thought. Planetoid Mines has labelled itself as the first Space Mining Company. The current focus is on the twenty-thousand Near Earth Asteroids holding 2 trillion tons of water. The company believes it will mine these asteroids in the next decade and has its eye on the Moon as well. The company is aiming to mine planetoid Davida by 2030, for its estimated $15 quintillion in resources. Larry Page ,co-founder of Planetary Resources, has the same ambition for NEAs and he is not alone. NEORA, TransAstra, Aten Engineering and DSI all want to turn asteroids into fuel stations.
Spectroscopic tests have already confirmed the percentages of H2O on several nearby asteroids. This water-ice can then be electrolyzed to make air and fuel. In order to have a sustainable existence in space, infrastructures and life need a constant supply of water.
To Space and Back
The current reason for launching people into space for prolonged periods is to see what it takes to survive up there. Astronaut food is dehydrated for transportation, then rehydrated for consumption. The International Space Station recycles up to 70% of its water. Stool, animal urine and sweat all go through various filters, to end up back where it started. Over 1.5 metric tons of water still need to be flown to ISS every year, costing money and cargo space. The practicality of mining water from asteroids, Mars or the Moon outweighs that of transporting it on demand.
“Beam Me Up, Scotty”
If you are looking for a job, Jeff Bezos is hiring now for Blue Origins. A company founded with the ultimate vision of having millions of people living and working in space. The owner of Amazon wants to land Americans on the Moon by 2024. The vehicle for doing so, New Shepard, has a similar re-entry process to the Falcon Heavy rockets. The 2018 mission has already flown science packages above 100 km for NASA and various universities. Bezos has recently presented Blue Moon to the world, a large lunar lander with a 6.5 ton payload capacity. Things look good for the multi-billionaire after successful testing of his BE-7 engines.
Blue Origins is not your only option for space travel. Virgin Galactic’s goal for the last 10 years has been to create a low earth orbiter for tourism. Long-term plans are interesting, the company wants to bring back Concorde-style commercial supersonic flights. Hefty price tags for a quick trip to space have resulted in limited access to the journey but the company continues to branch out. Virgin Orbit aims to be a competitive way to launch small satellites with a rocket launched from a 747-400 anywhere in the world.
To The Moon
NASA has said that the Moon is not a complete waste of space now that they have found water reserves. Estimates put 1-3 km3 of ice water in the craters of the Moon. The Moon, with its water and low gravity, is now a designated inter-planetary launchpad. Helium-3, an isotope particularly useful for fusion, is rare on Earth but abundant on the Moon. The GATEWAY project will be underway by 2022 and aims to have a lunar space station up and running by 2028.
To get the lunar station into space, NASA is going to private companies. Space-X has launched 60 Starlink satellites and shows no signs of backing off. They also launched a Tesla Roadster which is currently disintegrating around the solar system. The Roadster launch proved the flexibility of the launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy. The Telsa launch has won them many NASA contracts including sending parts of GATEWAY to lunar orbit for construction.
When NEAs are tapped out for mining, the target will be much bigger rocks. Moon Express (nothing to do with Pizza Express) is building commercial robotic vehicles to mine the Moon. Moon Express has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency to advance “knowledge and resources.” Moon Express plans to launch the first commercial (unmanned) expedition to the moon. For some reason they have modeled the Lunar Scout probe on R2D2 but the intentions are no joke. The little robot will land near the south pole in a crater that gets the most sunlight. There it will search for water and create a lunar outpost. By 2020, Lunar Scout will return to Earth bringing with it the first commercial lunar samples.
Germany’s Lunar X-prize entrants, PTScientists, are also set to have a lunar lander on the Moon by 2020. It will be the first Audi on the Moon, thanks to the car company sponsoring the Audi Lunar Quattro Rover’s construction in Germany. The lunar vehicle will take samples of the soil and return it to earth with the help of the European Space Agency. The ultimate goal will be to mine the Moon for its resources.
Mars has gone through significant surveys over the years showing it has more to offer businesses than becoming just a theme park. NASA states that, in the following order, the key reasons to go to Mars are: mining, tourism and science. Plans are in motion to use GATEWAY to send humans to Mars sometime after 2030.
As for mining, Mars One was an early competitor for asteroid mining but recently went bankrupt. However, that was not the end of story. Private mining companies owned by billionaires are going for water and ores. These assets are going to be worth a lot to mining companies. Water stored as ice would wait at a space-depository for residents to buy raw or sent to orbit and separated for fuel.
For billions of years, asteroids have been laying a film of rich deposits on the surface of Mars. Minerals and rare earth metals lay waiting for exploitation. Iron oxide is the most common, hence the reason for the rusted look of the planet. Gold left undisturbed on the surface will be vital for building sensitive electronics. Titanium, magnesium and aluminum ores, when purified, are useful to manufacture spare parts with the aid of 3D printing.
Mars has plenty of water as it turns out, in craters, at the poles and even in its clouds. It is odd to think that billions of years ago, Mars looked like the Earth. The red planet is now arid but could still have 21 million km3 of water-ice trapped under its surface. All these companies with plans of mining asteroids also want a cut of Mars. If GATEWAY and Mars habitats are successful, the demand for water will have to keep the operation running uninhibited. Companies will undercut the cost of Earth water transportation with their own processed brands of water.
NASA has plans for a ship that warps space though it may never happen. It would be helpful if it worked as journeys to the outer solar system would take seconds. But who knows, with all these mining expeditions one of them might find the key to start the warp speed race.
Winning the Space Race
The space race is heating up and there are many races going on at once. The most important, immediate competition is who will win the race to mine Mars first. That company is going to end up running our solar system. On the positive side, the corporate space race drives exploration to distant worlds. If we want to keep up with humankind’s need to consume, and it does not look like this is going to stop any time soon, the only way is up.