Not so quietly, NASA has been planning its return to the moon over the last few decades. Since the early 2000s, it has purposefully encouraged the private sector to help it develop its revamped lunar mission plans. Unlike past space explorations involving the moon, these current endeavors have loftier goals. Previously, the landing on the moon simply proved that humankind had the capacity. But today’s pursuits relate more to lunar commercial activities and long-range objectives for extraplanetary colonization. And it’s this vision that is rapidly expanding the lunar market in both scope and value. According to some estimates, this sector will exceed $137 billion over the next 10 years.
Understanding this, it’s not surprising that the space economy is rapidly growing. An array of lunar commercial activities is being considered in an effort to create sustainability on the moon. In addition to rockets and lunar transportation, this means moon infrastructures will need to be developed. Likewise, various moon-related services will need to be advanced in supporting an active lunar market. NASA is investing in each of these areas, and it’s doing so via contracts with private enterprises. Thus far, this approach has been a win-win for all, saving NASA R&D dollars while supporting private industry growth. And it if all goes as planned, the lunar market could well be self-sustaining within the decade.
The Scope of Today’s Lunar Market
Given the long-range perspective for the moon to be more than an exploration destination, NASA has a broad vision. In essence, it is to be a place for humans to live, work, and build rather than simply study. In this regard, a number of lunar commercial activities are being anticipated within the decade. Initially, NASA hopes to establish the moon as a lunar base camp where humans can reside for weeks to months. It will then become a more lasting destination where ongoing human and robotic activities will take place. And ultimately, the moon will serve as a pit stop on longer-range space travel, perhaps to Mars. The recent discovery of water on the moon could well support it as a fueling station. This is the vision that NASA is currently pursuing and hoping to realize by 2030.
Given such a vision, it’s clear that the lunar market will consist of more than just transportation to and from the moon. Certainly, investments in lunar rockets will continue to represent the vast majority of funding. However, many other areas will need funds for ongoing development in these lunar commercial activities. For example, lunar landers will need to shuttle individuals and supplies to and from orbiting vessels. Robotics will be needed for a variety of activities ranging from construction to mining operations. Lunar Internet access and GPS systems will also need to be created and maintained. And lunar transportation systems will similarly need to be advanced to achieve effective integrations. In fact, General Motors and Lockheed Martin are already working on a potential battery-operated rover for these purposes.
Lunar Resources and Uses
One of the major aspects driving NASA’s lunar vision forward involves the potential resources the moon has to offer. As a result, many of the lunar commercial activities relates to these resources and their acquisition. Mining operations will comprise a significant part of these endeavors with regolith, known as moon dust, being a primary target. Regolith contains a rare form of non-radioactive helium-3 that can be used for nuclear fusion reactors. This could represent a major energy resource for the future, even on earth. In addition, regolith can also be used in the construction of lunar structures. In time, regolith mining is expected to be one of the more prominent lunar market activities. It is also worth noting that NASA is working with Lockheed Martin on a nuclear reactor proposal for the moon. Regolith is certain to play a key role in this.
Mining for regolith is not the only mining pursuit involved in lunar commercial activities. In addition, the moon could offer another site for mining rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are becoming increasingly hard to extract on earth and are in high demand. They play a major role on the production of electronics, and new resource sites are needed. In this regard, the moon could be such a site if meteorites striking the planet contained such elements. Another lunar mined resource will likely involve water as well. Polar regions of the moon have been found to have small collections of water below the surface. Companies like Astrobotic Technologies out of Pittsburgh has contracted with NASA in using robotic explorers to search for these collections. As noted, water could be used to create fuel that might enable the moon to be a refueling station. This too will therefore become an attractive lunar market in time.
Long-Term Plans for the Moon
Known as the Artemis missions, NASA has several future lunar space trips planned in the coming years. While the initial missions will involve establishing transport routes and supplies, these will soon shift toward other projects. In order for the moon to serve as an extraplanetary destination long-term, several pieces must be in place. For example, Internet and Wi-Fi systems must be established. NASA has recently awarded Nokia a $14 million contract for this purpose to create a 4G network there by 2024. Well-established payload and passenger shuttles must also be in place. Billions of dollars have already been given to SpaceX and Blue Origin for these lunar commercial activities. For a lunar market to become a reality, these are essential components.
In total, the lunar market is expected to be a complex and highly lucrative endeavor. The question, however, is whether it will be self-sustaining, and if so, when. Currently, few startups involved in lunar commercial activities have received significant private funding. Instead, NASA and the government represent the key contributors. But in time, it’s expected that the discoveries and innovations cultivated the lunar market will drive private support as well. This will occur not only because of increased commerce on the moon but due to earth-related applications from these creations. In either case, NASA is clearly committed to its lunar pursuits, and it’s using private businesses to assist.