x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The new $30 million space race

While Nasa's manned moon landing project has been shelved, hi-tech companies around the world are going head-to-head in a new space race.

Fly me to the moon: private companies have restarted the space race in the hope of finding a profitable new frontier with abundant natural resources.
Fly me to the moon: private companies have restarted the space race in the hope of finding a profitable new frontier with abundant natural resources.

While Nasa's manned moon landing project has been shelved, hi-tech companies around the world are going head-to-head in a new space race. At stake is not just $30 million in prize money for the winner, but billions of dollars worth of lunar natural resources. Tom Gara reports By 2012, if all goes to plan, mankind will again reach the Moon, 40 years after the last human set foot there and more than half a century since the first man-made object landed on the lunar surface.

Human exploration of space has been in hibernation since the great Cold War-era race to the Moon. In the 15-year period ending in 1976, more than 60 manned and unmanned Moon landings took place. There have not been any since. But that is set to change, with more than a dozen different international consortiums in a new race to the Moon. The nature of the contest could hardly be more different from the one that animated the 1960s and early 1970s.

The original space race between the US and the Soviet Union was motivated by a combination of national pride and potential military advantage. This time it is private companies that are doing battle, with motivation in the form of hard cash: not just prizes of up to $30 million on offer for a successful Moon landing, but access to lunar natural resources potentially worth billions of dollars. "Of course, all of us in this industry love what we are doing, we believe in space and we want to see this frontier explored," said Ramin Khadem, the chairman of Odyssey Moon, based on the Isle of Man off the west coast of England. The consortium plans to reach the Moon within two years. "But there is no doubt about it, this is a commercial operation and we plan on making plenty of money."

Google, the internet company with interests in a wide range of hi-tech projects, has put up a US$20 million (Dh73.46m) prize to be awarded to the next team to land a craft on the Moon, explore the surface and send images back to Earth. The prize concept has worked before. In 1909, the French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot won £1,000 put up by the London newspaper the Daily Mail when he flew 35km across the English Channel from Calais to Dover. Ten years later the New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first person to fly non-stop between Paris and New York. In 1927 the American aviator Charles Lindbergh claimed the prize, becoming a national hero in the US and spurring on a new era of public and commercial interest in aviation.

The Orteig Prize was used as a model for the Ansari X Prize, launched in 1996 as a contest for private groups to put a person into space and return them home safely, and repeat the feat within two weeks. In 2004 the $10m prize was awarded to the Tier One team, operated by the US aerospace company Scaled Composites, whose SpaceShipOne technology was soon acquired by the world's best-known sub-orbital space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.

The X Prize Foundation is now setting its sights higher with the Google Lunar X Prize, and teams from around the world are stepping up to the challenge. While the $30m prize money will be dwarfed by the amount invested by the teams, each is aiming for something bigger than a one-time payout: they want to stake a claim on a true frontier industry. And like the great Earth-bound frontiers of the past, it is natural resources that are expected to be the first moneymaker in space.

The Moon is believed to be rich in helium-3, a rare (on Earth) non-radioactive element that scientists say could be used to produce energy in nuclear fusion power plants, which would be far more efficient and less potentially dangerous than current nuclear fission reactors. According to Gerald L Kulcinski, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin, if helium-3 were valued for its energy output, a tonne would be worth in excess of $4 billion. The yearly energy needs of the US could be satisfied with just 25 tonnes of the substance.

While helium-3 exists on the Moon in far greater concentrations than it does on Earth, extracting the isotope would still require large-scale mining systems, which remain decades away from being technically practical. But those heading for the Moon today are determined to be the pioneers of the process. The possibility of mining the Moon's helium-3 has been considered ever since the first astronauts returned with samples of lunar rock containing the isotope. But a more recent discovery suggests a more immediately useful substance lies beneath the lunar surface.

Last September, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) deliberately crashed its Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (Lcross) into a region of the Moon permanently in shadow. The plume of dust and gas kicked up by the impact contained about 25 gallons of water, a discovery that Nasa said "opens a new chapter in our understanding of the Moon". Michael Wargo, the chief lunar scientist at Nasa, said the discovery was the beginning of a new phase of lunar research. "We're unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbour and, by extension, the solar system," he said. "The Moon harbours many secrets, and Lcross has added a new layer to our understanding."

Water can be turned into hydrogen, itself a fuel source. More importantly, water is essential to sustain life, meaning a permanent human settlement on the Moon could potentially survive without constant, and costly, shipments of water from Earth. "The presence of energy and water means two very good reasons why we should be on the Moon," said Mr Khadem, an Iranian-American who has previously worked with some of the world's largest aerospace businesses. "If we can colonise the moon and create self-sustaining communities that can power themselves and feed themselves, then exploration out to deeper space will become much more feasible."

Private space businesses have plenty of work to do in mining the Moon for its resources, but getting there has rewards of its own. An announcement last month by Barack Obama, the US president, means developing the spaceships and rockets needed to reach the Moon is now a lucrative industry in its own right. In January, many were dismayed whenMr Obama cancelled the Nasa project designed to take humans back to the Moon. The Constellation programme envisaged new rockets and a new crewship called Orion to put astronauts on the lunar surface by 2020. But Mr Obama said the project was too costly, "behind schedule, and lacking in innovation".

Instead, he set out a bold new vision for space exploration, and the role the US government would play in it. Mr Obama urged Nasa to become a customer of private rocket and spacecraft companies, rather than a developer of its own ships. Ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station will be the first job to be outsourced. "A strengthened US commercial space launch industry will bring needed competition," the Obama administration said.

"It will act as a catalyst for the development." @Email:tgara@thenational.ae