Private space companies are eyeing the Moon's resources for mining

The race to develop lunar landers that can prospect for valuable minerals, mine them, and send them back to Earth, is proceeding along, slowly but surely.

The MX-1 lander has just been unveiled by Moon Express, a private space company. It's not an amazing piece of technology, not when compared to something like Nasa's $2.5bn Curiosity rover currently on Mars, but it does represent an early contender in what will become a decades-long race to mine the Moon for profit.

Private space companies have started to appear around the world, but particularly in the US, as the price and technology barriers for space travel fall and governments turn away from nationalised space policies. Some companies, like Virgin Galactic, are planning on giving tourists an expensive thrill, while others, like SpaceX, see a gap in the market for cargo services. This month, SpaceX put a commercial satellite into orbit for the first time, and last year it made history as the first company contracted to send a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.

The US government in particular, through Nasa, is starting to encourage private space companies to bid for contracts, creating an industry that is a bit like defence - one large state-funded agency that collaborates with private companies on projects and which outsources certain parts of its research and development. This is where Moon Express comes in. Here's how it describes its new probe:

The main MX-1 rocket engine is a dual mode bi-propellant system that also uses kerosene as an after burner to give the spacecraft the punch to break out of Earth orbit, accelerate to faster than a bullet, travel a million miles to beyond the Moon, and come back to break to zero velocity using its outboard thrusters as it touches the lunar surface. The spacecraft is designed to ride to Earth orbit on low cost secondary payload opportunities aboard commercial launchers like the SpaceX Falcon 9 that are radically reducing the cost of access to space.

About the size of a large coffee table, the MX-1 is a completely self-contained single stage spacecraft that can reach the surface of the Moon from a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) commonly used to place communications satellites above the Earth. It is also designed to be a flexible spacecraft platform that can support a number of applications including serving as a flexible, agile upper stage for existing launch systems enabling Earth orbit cubesat deployment, satellite servicing, and "space tug" applications such as cleaning up space debris.

This first version of the MX-1 is designed to do one specific thing - land on the move, drive around a bit, and send back some high-definition video footage. Those are the criteria that, once fulfilled, will win the $20m Google Lunar X Prize. The prize, sponsored by Google but offered by the X Prize Foundation, is the latest in a number of space-related challenges inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize of 1919. That's the one Charles Lindbergh won by completing the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris. The aim of these prizes is to give small private companies something to aim for beyond just the record of being first.

There is quite the incentive to get to the Moon, though. We use a lot of what are known as "rare Earth minerals" - with wonderful names like cerium, neodymium, and dysprosium - in electronics, but they're a finite resource. They're very common throughout the Earth's crust, but the name comes from the fact that they rarely appear in concentrations high enough to make mining economical. This has made the mining of such minerals a geopolitical issue, with politicians in the US and Europe threatened by China's control of most of the world's mines.

The Moon, it's thought, formed out of molten rock ejected from the early Earth's crust, and as such should have plenty of rare Earth minerals lying around waiting to be prospected and mined. Helium-3, an isotope essential for operating nuclear fusion reactors, is also theorised to be abundant on the Moon. Newt Gingrich had this in mind when he proposed building a Moon base as part of his failed campaign to become the Republican candidate for president in 2012.

That's if we can find it, of course, and the current UN treaty that governs the Moon - the 1966 Outer Space Treaty - effectively treats it like international waters. Private companies can explore and mine it all they want. We're many decades away from seeing established mining colonies on the Moon (and even then, expect them to be completely robotic), but keep an eye on companies like Moon Express, as they'll be the first ones up there.

The MX-1 lander with Moon Express founder Bob Richards. (Photo: Moon Express)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The Fake Kids of Instagram? Behind the backlash against the internet famous

Bloggers and vloggers are coming under fire for seeming inauthentic online. 

When beauty blogger Amelia Liana went to the Taj Mahal, there wasn’t another tourist in sight. The ivory-white world heritage site was deserted of all but Liana and a flock of swooping white birds overhead. Liana stood in front of the long reflecting pool that stretches out from the iconic building and stared off into the distance. It was a rare and beautiful moment of solitude at one of the seven wonders of the world.

At least, according to Liana’s Instagram.

As a blogger and YouTuber, Liana is no stranger to online hate. Yet over the last month, social media has been ablaze with individuals accusing Liana of Photoshopping, editing, and faking her pictures. In particular, critics claim she is cutting out pictures of herself and pasting them onto separate pictures of locations and landmarks. Some claim she edited out the tourists in her Taj Mahal picture, while others allege she Photoshopped herself on to a picture of the site.

Liana has released video footage showing that she attended the locations in question, but her critics are not convinced that her corresponding Instagram pictures are entirely authentic.

 A still from Liana's video of her India trip

In one example, lifestyle blogger and masters student Ellie Dickinson, 22, claimed Liana had Photoshopped a picture of an ice-cream in New York City. In the picture, Liana holds up a specialist ice-cream cone from Taiyaki, a shop that Dickinson claims is a twenty minute drive from the street in Liana’s picture. To her, it appears as if Liana took a picture of her ice-cream in one location and then edited it onto another, creating a composite to two images.

These criticisms of Liana's Instagrams are not isolated. She has also been accused of Photoshopping a fake sunset into a plane window and, in one bizarre example, editing a photograph taken at Heathrow Terminal 5 so that the background features planes in Heathrow Terminal 2. In the most questioned photograph, Liana appears to have Photoshopped her bed so it is in front of a picturesque London view. It is hard to prove or disprove which of Liana's photos are faked (or indeed whether any are), though many online are sharing the accusations.

“Because I work with Photoshop a lot, I zoomed in on one of her pictures because the grain and sharpness didn't seem right and went from there,” explains Dickinson, who says she thought this incident was “the icing on top of the cake” of blogger and Instagram fakery. Dickinson didn't intend for hate to be sent Liana's way, but urges people to be more questioning of what they see online. 

“Instagram is always a slightly fictionalised image of our lives but too many people believe it's the reality," she says. In her opinion: “We all adjust contrast and lighting but she's taken it a step too far.” 

Fakery on Instagram is nothing new. In May, the Instagrammer and Photographer Sara Melotti told me about the “Instagram mafia”, explaining that many travel bloggers visit the same spot to get the perfect photo, but then leave without touring the area. In October 2015, Instagram model Essena O’Neill quit the site, branding social media “contrived” and rewriting the captions on her images to explain how long it took to take a photo, or whether she was paid by a brand to pose with a product.

Yet the accusations against Liana seem to be more extreme. Though the star has video footage illustrating she really did visit the locations on her Instagram, editing pictures is a grey area. “I keep wondering how you are the only one in shot! It's always so busy there,” reads a comment on Liana’s photograph of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Things become more problematic when money is involved as Liana – like many Instagrammers and vloggers – is often paid by brands to advertise products on her social media. In the much-maligned London bed photograph, Liana is advertising the beauty brand Glam Glow. “Got the Glam Glow setter right after I saw it in your last Video - so far I love it! This picture totally blows my mind!! ❤” wrote one commenter. In many of her posts, Liana references hotels she is staying in, which could in turn influence her followers' booking decisions.

“I think the problem of dramatically engineering Photoshopped Instagram posts is that it encourages an unobtainable lifestyle,” says Laura, a 24-year-old beauty blogger who mocked Liana’s posts on Twitter when the fakery accusations emerged. Laura does not believe Liana should be “attacked” for Photoshopping, but does worry about the trend for fakery in the industry.

“Instagram, by nature, encourages us to post a filtered image focusing on the highlights of our life but there's a difference when Instagrammers choose to create a fantasy and pass that off as reality. When you factor in money and young influential fans as well, I think such a level of delusion edges towards being fraudulent.”

Last week, the YouTuber Lele Pons was accused of lying in an Instagram post in which she claimed to have cut off her hair to donate to charity. Emily Cutshall, a 17-year-old high school student from California discovered that in the picture, Pons was actually holding up hair extensions, passing them off as her real hair. She tweeted her discovery and gained over 76,000 retweets.

“I felt like I needed to get the word out,” explains Cutshall, who says she was “upset” that the star could mislead followers about contributing to a good cause. “The fact that Lele had lied about her donation was not something that I thought she should get away with.”

Since going viral, Cutshall has used her Twitter presence to encourage others to donate their hair. Though she felt guilty about directing negative attention to Pons, she believes it is important that more people “stand up for what [they] believe in and question the integrity of others”.

“If you see someone being dishonest about something you think is important, whether it's an internet personality or a stranger you met five minutes ago, you shouldn't be afraid to take a stand against that,” she says. Lele Pons later tweeted that she had intended to donate her hair before realising wig charities don’t accept dyed hair, but she did not explain why the hair in her photograph appears to be extensions.

The drama around Pons and Liana is part of a wider trend of “exposing” celebrities – both from social and traditional media. In 2016 #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended after her ex, Calvin Harris, ranted about her orchestrating media stories. Yet though the trend of “sipping tea” (that is, sharing rumours and enjoying gossip) can make exposing internet celebrities seem flippant, it is important to call out online fakery. Though a Photoshopped sunset is not as damaging as the “fake news” spread during and since the United States Presidential Election, it is still a worrying aspect of the erosion of authenticity online.

 

Headed to my favourite city today with @yslbeauty So excited to be back! #MonParis #Paris #TourEiffel

A post shared by Amelia Liana (@amelialiana) on

Amelia Liana did not respond to a request for comment and nor did her agency. Since 2015, she has been open and transparent about the fact she adds filters and changes the contrast to “play with” her pictures and make them appear more pink, but she has never confirmed the allegations of copying and pasting photographs of herself onto different backgrounds, nor adding in fake elements. It is hard to say with absolute certainty that her pictures are indeed faked, but the backlash demonstrates a thirst for reality and authenticity in an online world of posing and filters. 

In many recent captions on her Instagram photos, Liana has now taken to stating she visits popular attractions at 6 or 7am to get pictures without tourists in the background. In recent pictures, the birds that so frequently flew across the landscape in her old photographs are nowhere to be seen.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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