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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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

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