22 March 1998
- Other (None)
Confirmation of lunar ice good news for space commercialisation
Ice at lunar poles will facilitate profit-making in space
by Patrick Collins
Large quantities of water ice were discovered near the surface of the south lunar pole by the US Department of Defence's satellite "Clementine" in 1996. At a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on March 5 it was announced that data from NASA's Lunar Prospector satellite launched in January has confirmed that discovery and indicates the presence of many millions of tons of ice, and possibly as much as a billion tons, at both lunar poles.

Yet to be characterised in detail, the ice is believed to be mixed with dirt in which it is no more than 1%, so extraction will not be entirely simple. Nevertheless, the presence of the ice will simplify many activities on the Moon, including making rocket fuel.

NASA has no budget for lunar development, and this discovery may lead to contradictory pressures. Supporters may argue for an even larger budget so that NASA can "return to the Moon". But critics may argue more strongly to cancel the space station which is due to use up most of NASA's $14 billion annual budgets over the coming decade, without advancing lunar development.

The ice is also likely to be the cause of some interesting developments in space law. Following the famous case of "de facto" making of space law when Sputnik 1 established the precedent that vehicles in space are allowed to overfly countries on Earth (which international aviation law forbids within the atmosphere) it seems likely that some company will go to the Moon and start using the ice. They will thereby establish the precedent that they are allowed to do so, as Spacedev is currently planning to do for asteroidal resources.

Nearly all newspaper commentaries on Lunar Prospector's discovery referred to the ice's potential value for facilitating the establishment and operation of a future base on the Moon. Almost none even mentioned the ice's commercial potential. But this is surely the key significance of such a find - that it will facilitate companies getting a foothold in space, and opening it up to the general public and to economic growth. It is another sign of how far the public and media still are from viewing space as another place to do business.

The key problem facing commercial companies wanting to get involved in lunar development is "how to profit from this ice?" It's certainly potentially enormously valuable in reducing costs of lunar activities. But unless companies can actually sell something to someone, they can't realise that value.

Luckily the ice can be used to generate exports from the Moon, which are essential for repaying commercial investment in lunar development. Water can be exported directly (more easily than liquid oxygen which can be extracted from Moon rocks) or it can be used to enable exports by splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen. These are good rocket propellants which will make launch from the Moon easier in the earlier stages than a linear-motor launcher.

But where will they export water to? What is needed is a market with very high prices. This is why tourism in Earth orbit is such a key activity. By growing to a turnover of $billions/year, it will become a major market in orbit for water, oxygen, fuel, and other lunar materials - at prices reflecting the high cost of launch from Earth. Remember, even at only 1% of today's launch cost, water in orbit will still cost $100,000/ton - a nice high target for lunar water companies! And luckily, since there appear to be many millions of tons of ice, there should be no worry about "running out" in the near future.

In this way the billions of $$ of retail revenues collected by travel companies from space tourists will be the source of the funds that will pay for lunar development - or, more precisely, that will repay commercial investments made in lunar development.

This prospect of being able to earn profits from exporting lunar ice and its derivatives is likely to accelerate existing efforts at commercial development of space. For example, see the essay by Rotary Rocket "The Cold Rush Is On".

It should also attract new entrants - surely some mining companies are restudying the feasibility of lunar operations? At Space Future we expect that, like space tourism itself, these developments will happen sooner than most people seem to think.
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Patrick Collins 22 March 1998
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