The next panel after the lunch had an interesting mix of usual suspects and new entrants. For the sake of brevity (something I’m not usually known for), I’m going to just concentrate on the few more interesting parts. One of the interesting talks was by Brant Sponberg, the guy at NASA in charge of their Centennial Challenges prize program. His comments here and later in the conference deserve their own blog post, so I’ll comment on those later. The other two talks that stood out to me in this panel were given by Ken Stratton of Caterpillar, and Dennis Wingo of Skycorp.
It was nice to have someone like Ken there. Caterpillar is the biggest construction equipment manufacturers in the world. Apparently, they’ve actually been interested in lunar mining and construction for a while, and had given the topic a decent amount of thought. It is good to hear of successful companies from outside the industry that are trying to bring their expertise to the table. Companies like Caterpillar can leverage massive amounts of engineering experience and product development from their terrestrial applications to reduce the cost of developing lunar products.
Ken brought up the fact that as part of their work for reducing emissions of some of their terrestrial mining machines, Caterpillar had started doing some serious work in the fuel cell business. They apparently have a 250kw direct fuel cell developed. It wasn’t clear if these were now on the market or not, but it is definitely interesting. Something like a fuel cell with an exhaust trap would likely be needed for lunar equipment.
Ken also brought up their work in automation. Honestly, I was fairly surprised and impressed with the high level of sophistication that their automated and remotely controlled equipment had achieved over the years. While robots may still have hard times with dexterous applications, large scale applications like mining are definitely now within the grasp of a well designed automated system. Of course, you’ll still need on-site human intervention during the debugging phase, and for maintenance and oversight, but their work will definitely reduce the amount of manpower required. Not to mention, eliminating some of the needs for what might otherwise be a fairly bulky and cramped pressurized crew cabin.
Ken also made an interesting point about the type of machine that would most likely be used on the moon. His opinion was that due to cost, some sort of small, modular system with several plug-in tools was more likely than several custom-built systems. This seems to make sense, as it would likely allow for quicker economies of scale, and make it easier to have a wide array of tools on hand without having to ship tons of mass to the lunar surface. I look forward to hearing future info about their progress in these areas.
One of the nice points made at the end of his talk was that Caterpillar wanted to “make the tools” used for lunar development. This is actually a pretty good business plan. Regardless of which lunar markets turn out to be solid, and which end up as total busts, all of them will require construction equipment. There’s a reason why during the California goldrush, the people who made the most money were usually not the miners or prospectors, but the guys selling them tools, food, and clothes.
Dennis’s talk didn’t have too many surprises if you’ve read his book Moonrush. The hypothesis in that book is that due to the lower impact energies of meteorites striking the moon, the prevalence of nickel-iron meteorites, and the known occurence of Platinum Group Metals in nickel-iron meteorites, that there is a high chance that economically extractable quantities of PGMs can be found on the moon. Now, I don’t buy his arguments about the hydrogen economy. I do think that fuel cells and hybrids are the way to go for cars, but think that some sort of synthetic fuel that is easier to store than hydrogen will likely be the choice the market settles on. However, either way you look at it, there will be a high demand for plantinum, and if his hypothesis is right, it may end up being one of the earliest and largest lunar markets. Dennis reiterated the fact that while the validity of this hypothesis is still unknown, it is definitely falsifiable. He mentioned that lunar remote sensing with either penetrating radar, or high resolution IR should be able to help settle the question.
On a semi-unrelated note, he also briefly mentioned his work with NASA Langley on a solar-electric tug. He claims that he can deliver up to 60-100 tons to lunar orbit per year with some of his designs, at prices in the $20M per ton range. While not phenominally low cost, and not a phenominally high flight rate compared to some potential architectures, it is probably much better than anything NASA has on the boards, and in the near-term may make a lot of sense. I grilled him afterwards about Xenon availability, and he claims that Air Liquide can currently sell him enough for his 60-100tonnes of transportation per year, and that if neccessary there are other subsitutes that could be used. Can’t recall off the top of my head which alternative propellants he had suggested, but he claimed that they are much more common in the atmosphere, and hence potentially much cheaper.