By Rebecca Lewis
At present, private companies are pioneering the development of industries in the space economy, which involves all economic activities beyond Earth. While some companies like SpaceX and Boeing progress in the space cargo transport industry, others such as Moon Express and Planetary Resources advance in the creation of necessary technologies for resource extraction from the Moon and Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs). Although these companies’ goals may appear different, all revolve around the development of infrastructure from which the industrialization of space may arise.
To begin, cargo transport to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) became the first service offered in the space economy during the shuttle era of the late 1900s. These early cargo missions to Low Earth Orbit included the deployment of satellites and scientific experiments, crew transport for servicing of machinery like the Hubble Space Telescope, and supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Although these missions cost $1.5 billion on average during the shuttle program, increasingly efficient spacecraft technologies have dramatically decreased cargo transport cost in the 2010s. For example, regular supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) come from Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) at about $62 million per launch with their reusable, vertical takeoff-and-land Falcon-9 rockets. In addition, to further increase the efficiency of transport to LEO, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) partnered with Boeing under DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program in 2016 to create a commercially reusable space plane. Boeing’s prototype, the Phantom Express, is designed to launch daily and carry payloads from 900 to 3000 kilograms to LEO at a cost of, at most, $5 million per launch and it is scheduled to be commercial-ready by 2020.[5,6,7] Thus, between the work of SpaceX, Boeing, and other commercial spaceflight companies, cargo transport to space is already a growing industry.
The next stage of growth for the space economy therefore involves the construction of basic infrastructure like power and communications systems. However, construction requires raw materials like hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, and various other metals and volatiles with which to build and from which to derive fuel. To avoid the large cost of transporting raw materials from Earth due to Earth’s gravity well, raw materials could potentially be harvested from NEAs and/or the Moon. Through geologic sampling during the Apollo mission, NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission, and various infrared surveys, the Moon has been shown to possess significant amounts of hydrogen and oxygen in water ice. The water is known to be trapped in permanently shadowed crater near the lunar poles and is likely also locked in hydrous minerals in the lunar regolith, which is the meters-thick layer of loose dust and broken rock that covers the Moon’s surface.[9,10] Water is of particular importance because it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to create rocket fuel with which spacecrafts can refuel in space rather than on Earth. Moreover, available resources on NEOs have been determined through studies of known asteroids combined with computer simulations of potential NEA populations not yet discovered. These studies reveal that about half of the NEAs may be S-type asteroids composed of silicon, nickel-iron and smaller amounts of volatiles and other metals while as much as a fifth of NEAs may be C-type asteroids be rich in water-ice.[11,12] In addition, NEA resource extraction may even be more easily done than lunar mining because NEAs could be pulled closer to Earth’s orbit to decrease the cost of transporting mining equipment into place.
At present, two of the companies set on extracting resources from these sources, especially water, are Moon Express and Planetary Resources. First, Moon Express is currently in the process of preparing their MX-1 lander for their their first prospecting mission for water ice on the Moon, dubbed the Lunar Scout mission, and is slated to takeoff in 2018. Already Moon Express has performed successful test flights of their prototype lander, the MTV-1, and secured flight approval to the Moon from the US federal government through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).[15,16] Also, with regards to NEAs, Planetary Resources plans to launch their Arkyd-301 spacecraft in the early 2020s. This spacecraft is meant to demonstrate hydration mapping and subsurface extraction technologies by sending smaller exploration spacecraft propelled by ion thrusters to several NEAs. In working toward this goal, Planetary Resources tested crucial systems for the Arkyd-301 with their first spacecraft, the Arkyd-3, that deployed from the ISS in 2015 and plans to launch their second technologies demonstration craft, the Arkyd-6, in December 2017.[18,19] Assuming that the projects of Moon Express and Planetary Resources come to fruition, resource extraction and mining in space may quickly develop as an industry in the coming years like the space cargo transport industry has.
Finally, with groundwork laid in the space cargo transport and the resource extraction industries, the space economy could then expand to industries such as manufacturing and energy production on a scale large enough to export back to Earth. For example, lunar solar power is a method of power generation that is already being investigated for its profit potential. Physicist David R. Criswell of the University of Houston championed by arguing that lunar solar power beamed back to Earth as microwave radiation could be the solution to the Earth’s increasing energy needs. He argued that the Moon is an ideal location for the installation of solar panels because: (1) they would deteriorate very slowly without an environment to degrade them, thus requiring little maintenance, and (2) the Moon receives nearly continuous sunlight without cloud cover to interfere with solar panels. Alternatively, off-world from the Moon, cislunar space, or the space between Earth and the Moon’s orbit, could provide the ideal microgravity environment for several manufacturing processes. Examples of these processes include the welding of highly reactive materials such as titanium, containerless processing to create ultrapure metals, and the creation of alloys from metals with drastically different densities, all of which would work ideally in an airless, microgravity environment.
Overall, as space-based industries evolve from transportation and resource extraction to manufacturing and industrialization, they are a present and near-term future aspect of Earth’s economy. The industries build on each other and form bases for other industries to develop on top of. As such, Earth may finally coming to the point in its history where spaced-based industries move into space rather than merely being at development stages here on Earth.
NASA. “Shuttle missions.” Space shuttle. Last modified August 29, 2011, ed. Amiko Kauderer. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/index.html
Roger Pielke Jr. & Radford Bradley, “Shuttle programme lifetime cost,” Nature 472 (April 2011): 38, https://doi:10.1038/472038d
Allison F. Zuniga et al., “Building an Economical and Sustainable Lunar Infrastructure to Enable Lunar Industrialization,” AIAA SPACE and Astronautics Forum and Exposition 2017 (September): 5148, https://doi.org/10.2514/6.2017-5148.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “DARPA Picks Design for Next-Generation Spaceplane.” News and Events. Last modified May 24, 2017. Accessed November 13, 2017. https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-04-07b
Boeing. “Phantom Express.” Space. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 13, 2017. http://www.boeing.com/space/phantom-express/index.page#/specs
DARPA, “Next-Generation Spaceplane.”
Ian A. Crawford. “Lunar resources: A review.” Progress in Physical Geography 39, no.2 (2017): 137-167. https://doi:10.1177/0309133314567585
Colaprete A, Schultz P, Heldmann J, et al. 2010. “Detection of water in the LCROSS ejecta plume.” Science 330: 463–468.
Pieters CM, Goswami JN, Clark RN, et al. 2009. “Character and spatial distribution of OH/H2O on the surface of the Moon seen by M3 on Chandrayaan-1.” Science
Erasmus, E. et al. 2017. “Characterization of Near-Earth Asteroids Using KMTNET-SAAO.” The Astronomical Journal 154, no.4 (October): 162-72. https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-3881/aa88be
Sanchez, Joan-Pau & Colin R. McInnes. 2015. “Available Asteroid Resources in the Earth’s Neighborhood.” In Asteroids: Prospective Energy and Material Resources, edited by Viorel Badescu, 439-458. New York: Springer.
Moon Express. “Timeline.” About us. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017. http://www.moonexpress.com/about-us/
Linda Herridge. “Moon Express Testing Compact Lunar Lander at Kennedy Space Center.” NASA John F. Kennedy Space Center, December 15, 2014. https://www.nasa.gov/content/moon-express-testing-compact-lunar-lander-at-kennedy-space-center
Moon Express. “U.S. Government Approves Plan for Moon Express to Become First Private Company to Venture Beyond Earth’s Orbit,” press release. August 3, 2016. http://www.moonexpress.com/news/us-government-approves-plan-moon-express-become-first-private-company-venture-beyond-earths-orbit/
Planetary Resources. “Arkyd-301.” Missions. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017. https://www.planetaryresources.com/missions/arkyd-301/
Planetary Resources. “About Arkyd-3 Reflight.” Missions. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017. https://www.planetaryresources.com/missions/a3r/
Planetary Resources. “Timeline.” Company. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017. https://www.planetaryresources.com/missions/a3r/
David R. Criswell. “Solar Power via the Moon.” The Industrial Physicist 8, no.2 (2002): 12.
Avchare, K. R. et al. 2014. “Space Manufacturing Techniques: A Review.” International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications 4, no. 4 (April): 1-10.