An X Prize competition focuses attention on the moon, and potentially on its vast resources, turning the moon into a new target for entrepreneurs. Billionaire and serial entrepreneur Naveen Jain heads one of several companies vying for the $3million in prize money available for achieving several milestones.
The winning team will be the first team to send a commercial spacecraft to the moon, travel at least 500 meters on, under, or over the surface and transmit HD images and video back to earth, all by December 31, 2015. The competition also offers bonus prizes, and there are several milestone prizes for specific tasks completed on earth or in space.
Jain is the 55-year-old co-founder of Moon Express, a Mountain View, CA company planning to send commercial robots to the moon by the end of 2015. He believes the moon’s vast mineral wealth and reserves of helium-3 make lunar prospecting a viable way to address resource challenges here on Earth.
The great leaps in technology since the Apollo-Saturn missions make many new things possible Jain said. He cited the exponential growth in computing power over the past 50 years as an example.
Jain also spoke of replacing a “mind-set of scarcity” and replacing it with a “mindset of abundance” to make big things happen here on Earth. The ability to exploit the moon’s resources could cause just such a change.
Moon Express is set to complete its moon launch in the second half of 2015, for a cost of under $50 million. If a company with 50 employees can put together the software and hardware to land on the moon it would be a “singular event” in Jain’s words.
Moon Express is hardly the only contestant in this new moon race. Other Silicon Valley firms, including Planet Labs and Masten Space Systems, are also looking to exploit the moon’s mineral wealth. China recently put a rover on the moon.
Speaking on the current state of space exploration, Jain said that the “baton has been passed from government to the private sector.” An entrepreneurial spirit is now needed to do things at a lower cost and build a business. A group of entrepreneurs might be well positioned now to regard the moon as a new target for business ventures.
The Lunar X Prize Competition, sponsored by Google’s X Prize Foundation, includes 18 teams from around the world. The Foundation was established to address pressing global challenges by running high-profile competitions designed to stimulate research and development. Other X-Prize competitions have focused on robotics, artificial intelligence and reusable spacecraft.
Accomplishing the goals of the Lunar X Prize competition would be the beginning of a larger process. Jain said that once the competition goals are achieved there could be a second and a third mission designed to bring things back.
The race for the moon will be covered by two television networks. The Discovery Channel and the Science Channel have signed on to broadcast the landings and the live streaming image in addition to tracking and covering the efforts of several Lunar X Prize teams.
An economic incentive for visiting the moon is not hard to uncover. The moon is rich in gold, cobalt, iron, platinum, helium-3 and palladium, said Jain. Helium-3 is a potential source of fuel for fusion reactors, should they become commercially viable. The value of those resources, if they can be economically brought back to earth makes the moon a logical target for commercial ventures.
Jain says that helium-3, rare on Earth but abundant on the moon, might be so abundant that it could supply Earth’s energy needs for 10,000 years by powering fusion reactors. Platinum is also quite rare on earth but thought to exist in abundance on the moon. That platinum, Jain said, could be useful in a variety of electronic devices.
The resources cited by Jain make the moon a logical new target for entrepreneurs. Incentives like the Lunar X Prize, and the associated press attention, make competition to explore the moon something worth doing.
By Chester Davis