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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

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