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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Wonky Gyro Grounds Private Moon Lander

A startup with plans to mine the Moon for platinum fluffs its first public flight.

  • July 22, 2011

The champagne was poured, and rocket-shaped cookies handed out to an audience of investors, space engineers, and journalists assembled at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Yet a technical problem grounded the commercial moon lander being celebrated, post-poning the first public test flight of a non-government Moon craft.

Credit: Moon Express

The lander belongs to Moon Express, a year-old startup bidding to win the Google Lunar X Prize that will award prizes totaling $30 million to privately funded spacecraft that reach the lunar surface before the end of 2015. One of the lander’s gyroscopes failed and had to be replaced by a component from another company. But the replacement worked slightly differently, convincing the lander it was spinning in the opposite direction to its true rotation. Previous flights have taken place successfully behind closed doors.

Moon Express co-founder Barney Pell, previously an internet entrepreneur and NASA engineer, told me this was a small set back on the road to his company’s ultimate goal: mining the Moon for precious metals. According to Pel there are “vast amounts” of platinum and related metals on the moon, deposited there by meteorites. The moon’s lack of tectonic activity means they remain on the surface today and would be relatively easy to collect, he claims. “The current price of platinum closes the business case,” said Pel, estimating it would take around $20 billion to set up the infrastructure needed to return $40 billion of platinum back to Earth every year.

Pel’s plan is to pay a private space company - probably Space X - to deposit his lander into lunar orbit and rent space on his craft to mining companies. “It’s like selling shovels in the gold rush,” he said. Yet despite Pel’s exuberant optimism, his company so far has no firm idea on how it would return material of any kind from the lunar surface.

Another Moon Express co-founder, serial entrepreneur and billionaire Naveen Jain, assured me it was possible to make money from moon landings without bringing anything back. Moon Express will be the iPhone of interplanetary travel, he claimed, and unleash a flood of “apps” that could barely be imagined. “When you build a platform anyone can use it for anything,” he said, “when the iPhone came out no one said ‘I think this would be great for shooting pigs with birds’ but that’s the top app today.”

One customer has already bought a ticket with Moon Express, asking them to deposit a small telescope on the dark side of the Moon. Jain says the company will also offer low cost ways for anyone to use the moon as a kind of time capsule. “If something goes to the moon it stays there forever, people will pay to sends things like photos, or maybe your hair or DNA.”

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