What Will We Do On The Moon: Commercial Applications

Continuing with my coverage of the Return to the Moon conference, the next panel after Chris’s presentation discussed the important topic of what likely markets there are on the moon. This is pretty darned fundamental to the cause of commercial lunar development, because without actual markets and customers, there will be no commercial lunar development.

The first talk was presented by a researcher working with t/Space. I didn’t write his name down, but from looking on the t/Space site, I think this may have been Dr “Red” Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University and RedZone Robotics. Dr Whittaker’s speach was very interesting, but got interrupted in the middle by a fire alarm. I’ll have to see if I can get a copy of his presentation sometime in the future. He was mostly talking about lunar polar ice mining, and made some interesting points. I was able to get a few notes taken down before and after the false alarm. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just a list a few of those points quickly (though if I am able to get a copy of his presentation, I may give a more thorough discussion later):

  • He said that t/Space’s idea of refueling their lunar vehicle in LUNO allows it to eventually switch to ISRU derived propellants when they become available.
  • He mentioned that from their architecture studies that only about 20% of the propellant generated on the Moon will actually arrive in Low-Earth Orbit.
  • The system he proposed for harvesting lunar ice consists of a small number of small machines.
  • With the supposed concentrations of lunar ice predicted, relatively small amounts of regolith need to be processed to create relatively large amounts of propellant.
  • Since the Moon has a vacuum, all that is needed to harvest water from lunar ice is to heat it to about 150K, at which point it will sublime away, where it can then be collected.

The last bit was something I hadn’t realized before. I kept assuming that if there really is lunar ice deposits, that you would need to melt the stuff out at moderately high temperatures to extract it. That said, Dr Whittaker’s assumption that the lunar hydrogen deposits were most definitely ice didn’t seem to sit to well with me or many of the other attendees. While it is possible, it would’ve been nice to see a bit more healthy skepticism. It’s all to common in the space realm to hear people make overly optimistic statements that then make us look silly later on. All that said, if the polar hydrogen is in the form of ices, the sublimation technique they are suggesting (possibly using microwave heating like Dr Taylor discussed on Day 1) looks like it could very well be one of the best ways for extracting the ice.

The next speaker, Hugh Arif of Cisco discussed the idea of trying to merge space communications with terrestrial communications. More particularly, he was talking about some work that Cisco has been doing on trying to integrate space communications into the internet. IT is definitely not my background, but what he said was interesting. Apparently there are some protocols that are able to deal well with the latency issues inherent in space communications. Cisco has in fact already developed a space certified router, and has even flown some hardware with a European project. One of the goals seemed to be allowing people to securely be able to communicate with and control space assets using systems as simple as a router. This would allow much lower cost control of space missions, especially for commercial projects. They are apparently interested in getting people to fly their routers on their vehicles, in the attempt to set up a commercial cislunar communications system. While a lot of this is beyond my area of expertise, it looks interesting. More importantly, it’s cool to see a large company like Cisco becoming interested in commercial space projects. We need to see more participation from the likes of Cisco and Caterpillar.

The next presentation was delivered by The Space Show’s Dr Livingston in behalf of Dr Tom Matula. Tom and I have had many heated discussions over on the Space Arena about the role of commercial and government activities in space over the past months and years. However his talk on nearterm space missions had some interesting points. While Tom was mostly focusing on very near-term markets, and assuming no drastic reduction in launch costs, he did come up with some interesting suggestions. Most of his suggestions were similar to others made over the years, such as virtual tourism, and selling of data to government and commercial sources (like TransOrbital’s plan), LUNOX extraction and commercial sample return missions. He did make a few points though that I had never thought of before. He suggested looking into how pre-WWII polar exploration was funded. However the most important idea that he brought up was the idea of using nonprofit organizations as the umbrella group to perform some of these lunar missions. This was a theme touched on a few more times throughout the conference, and one that definitely merits further study.

Dennis Wingo finished off this panel, with an interesting, but relatively long-term discussion about the potential for building spacecraft on the Moon. The potential benefits he touted, such as the ability to build big, squat, vehicles of practically no limits on cargo volume, were very interesting. However, the whole idea of doing heavy manufacturing on the Moon seems a bit premature. I don’t doubt it’ll eventually happen, but I think Dennis needs to make a better case of how to get from here to there.

Anyhow, all in all, this panel had some interesting ideas for potential lunar markets. However it looks like there is still some refining that needs to be done before these ideas are truly ready for execution.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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