The Resources Behind the Race to the Moon

Jan 29, 2024
The Resources Behind the Race to the Moon

It has been an exciting few days in the world of space exploration.

On January 19, Japan’s space agency — JAXA — successfully landed its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) spacecraft on the moon… in the region of Mare Nectaris (Sea of Nectar) located about 15 degrees south of the lunar equator.

SLIM, which is also known by a much cooler name — the “Moon Sniper” — was the first attempt at a precision landing on the moon.

Here’s how things ended up:

Japan's Moon Sniper "SLIM" Face-Plants
Source: JAXA

And here is how they were supposed to end up:

Rendering of Japan's Moon Sniper SLIM
Source: JAXA

The second photo, the one directly above, is unfortunately just an artist’s rendering. 

The first photo is what really happened.

It’s one heck of a face-plant.

I know it’s hard for many of us to discern. But the first photo above shows the Moon Sniper’s “nose” stuck in the moon-dirt… with the tail end sticking straight up to the stars.

And yet, the mission is still a great success…

Though for several days, it wasn’t clear that was going to be the case.

Dead Air

This particular mission was nerve-wracking for the last 10 days.

One of the engines of the SLIM spacecraft failed during the landing.

This resulted in SLIM landing with the wrong orientation, as we can now see from the first picture. 

This caused the solar cells to be in an awkward position… and unable to generate enough electricity.

JAXA was forced to shut the power off in the spacecraft, otherwise it would deplete whatever energy it had left in its batteries. SLIM was programmed to automatically turn back on in the event that the solar panels were able to generate enough power.

During that window, there was no communication with the SLIM lander. It was just a painful waiting game.

Which is why it was so exciting to see the news in the last two days, when communications were suddenly reestablished. The lunar lander was able to power back up again.

Better yet, two small robots that are part of the SLIM lander were confirmed to have deployed as well. 

Lunar Excursion Vehicle 1 (LEV-1), which is a small lunar hopper, and LEV-2, which is a ball-shaped robot, are now on the lunar surface.

It was actually LEV-2, which is about the size of a baseball, that snapped the first photo above, showing us the unfortunate landing of the SLIM lander.

SLIM’s LEV-2 Robot | Source: JAXA
SLIM’s LEV-2 Robot | Source: JAXA

But despite SLIM’s “nose” being stuffed into the lunar regolith and its “tail” stuck up in the air like an ostrich, the mission is on.

And the landing was remarkably accurate. 

SLIM arrived just 55 meters from its target landing spot.

For perspective, most lunar missions have landing zones measured in kilometers, not meters.

And had one of the engines not failed on landing, the precision would have certainly been within just a few meters.

This success now puts Japan in a very small club.

Human Outposts

The mission makes Japan the fifth country to successfully achieve a soft landing on the moon. 

Both the U.S. and Russia did it in the 1960s. China’s Chang’e 3 managed to land in 2013. And more recently, India’s Chandrayaan-3 made the journey in 2023.

Japan’s latest success with SLIM adds a new element to the mix…

As this newly ignited moon race accelerates, precision landings will become more and more important.

Readers may recall that in my January 17, 2024 issue of Outer Limits, I wrote that one of our collective goals should be to “develop the technology to become a multi-planetary species. The goal is to spread both human consciousness and synthetic intelligence beyond Earth.”

As a human outpost is established on the moon, there will eventually be landing pads constructed on the lunar surface at locations adjacent to the outpost.

And while this is just the first step, activity is picking up on the moon now.

As we explored in the January 8, 2024 issue of Outer Limits, this is an exciting year for lunar missions. 

Unfortunately, the Peregrine Mission One, led by private aerospace company Astrobotic, suffered a mission failure before it reached the moon.

The Peregrine spacecraft suffered a leak in its propellant, which meant that it would not have enough “gas” to make it to the moon for a successful landing. Astrobotic had to schedule a controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a fiery end to an exciting mission.

However, there is a lot to look forward to right around the corner. 

Intuitive Machines (LUNR), a publicly traded company, is scheduled to launch its IM-1 lunar mission, targeting the lunar south pole, around mid-February.

Intuitive Machine’s IM-1 Spacecraft

Intuitive Machine’s IM-1 Spacecraft
Source: Intuitive Machines

With all this lunar activity from both nation states and private companies, I bet that some of us are wondering, why? 

What’s all the fuss?

And why right now?

Hydrogen and Oxygen

Right now, the answer is simple — water.

With the launch costs to reach low-earth orbit (LEO) and the moon plummeting, powerful countries are gunning for a presence on the moon. 

Reminiscent of the Cold War, there is a clear understanding that doing so is within reach of several countries.

The worst outcome of which would be: Being beat to establish a lunar outpost. 

It could very well be a matter of national security, as perceived by several countries, which is why the race is on.

And that’s precisely why water, or more specifically ice, is the most critical thing to find… in volume.

Of course, water is necessary to support human life. And assuming abundant resources are on the moon, this would save us tremendous cost and time not having to “ship” large quantities to the moon.

But water is far more valuable than just life support.

When water is broken down into its two constituent parts — hydrogen and oxygen — you can make rocket fuel

The moon then becomes a waystation.

Rocket fuel can be produced on the moon for the purpose of fueling farther missions into our solar system. Again, saving the need to launch rocket fuel into orbit for each and every mission.

This isn’t theory either. We already know that there is somewhere on the order of 600 million to 1 billion metric tons of lunar ice that can be “mined” and processed. 

Extracting the lunar ice should be straight forward, but the processing is going to take some trial and error.

After all, it’s not like we have some lunar ice on Earth we can test with. 

One of the biggest unknowns is how to remove any impurities from the lunar water. We haven’t worked with it before. And it needs to be purified before drinking or creating rocket fuel.

These are exciting problems to solve. Now we just need to get to it. 

This string of lunar missions will all contribute to NASA’s Artemis missions.

For Japan, SLIM is a great victory, as it’s Hakuto-R lunar lander, made by private company Ispace, smashed onto the moon’s surface last May. 

Japan-based Ispace was in a race to become the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon.

Ispace followed a similar attempt by Israel-based SpaceIL, which crashed its lunar spacecraft in May of 2019.

Next month is Intuitive Machines, which hopes to be the first private company to land on the moon.

No matter what happens, I know it is going to be exciting.

And the country, or countries, that can successfully mine and purify water on the moon will be in a unique position, enabling a sustainable lunar outpost capable of supporting human life.

Which leads to an even bigger play…

Closer Than We Think

The ability to mine for rare earth metals that are in such low concentrations on Earth, as well as helium-3 which is in abundance on the moon. 

Helium-3 is a critical input for fueling nuclear fusion reactors, and it is reasonable to mine on the moon and return to Earth for that purpose.

That’s right — these aren’t just resources for use in space. They are resources in short supply that can be harvested from the moon and returned to Earth for clean energy and electronics applications.

There is so much at play on the moon that so few are talking about.

And I know that it seems too far out to be real. But it’s not. The technology is here, and I discussed in my inaugural issue of Outer Limits on November 21, 2023, the costs have declined to the point where they are within the realm of private companies.

And if we consider the use of autonomous robots and modern mining equipment adapted to a lower gravity environment like the moon, it is much closer than we think.

I believe that humans will set foot on the moon in less than three years, and we’ll have a permanent outpost on the moon in less than 10.

And for those timelines to be realized, we’re going to see a whole lot of investment over the next 5-7 years in the aerospace industry.

That’s why the race is on!

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