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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 with Moon Express founder Bob Richards. (Photo: Moon Express)

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.