The 21st Century Lunar Gold Rush
摘要： If we are really to regard this current wave of Moon landings as a second "race to the Moon", first we must note the differences between this one and that of the Cold War period. Most evident is the usurping of politics by business.
The Moon has been kept busy recently, with successive visits from new friends. In January, she was paid a visit by 'Chang'e 4' in what became the first landing on the "Dark Side of the Moon". More recently, Israel's 'Genesis' was sent into space by Elon Musk's SpaceX. Later in the year, India's 'Chandrayaan-2' will make its own Moon landing.
Such high frequency of lunar travel has led to talk in the media of a re-emerging "race to the Moon". On the one hand, more and more countries have achieved successful first landings. On the other, NASA has revealed that it will accomplish a manned lunar landing by 2028.
If we are really to regard this current wave of Moon landings as a second "race to the Moon", first we must note the differences between this one and that of the Cold War period. Most evident is the usurping of politics by business.
Playing by a new set of rules: the "Moon race" of the 21st century
Take Israel's recent 'Genesis' as an example. Effectively, it is the result of cooperation between two tech companies.
In 2007, Google introduced the 'Lunar XPRIZE', calling on private companies to research and develop unmanned spacecraft for lunar landing and offering 30 million USD in prize money. The first privately funded team to land a spacecraft on the Moon safely, have it travel along the Moon's surface for at least 500 meters, then transmit back to Earth data packets of high-definition video and photographs would be awarded the money.
The initial deadline set by Google was in 2015. However, by 2015, with so few applicants, the company kept extending the deadline, ultimately settling on 31 March, 2018. Google even added several consolation awards, claiming that any spacecraft that touched down on the surface of the Moon, even by crashing, or that soft landed and was able to transmit back images, even if unable to move along the surface, would be eligible for prize money.
Though unfortunately no single team had managed to earn any prize by last year's deadline, Google at least gained the good reputation of "encouraging the development of space technology". At the same time, the competition propelled some privately funded lunar landing research teams into the public's attention. The Israeli nonprofit space organization SpaceIL that is behind the recent launch of 'Genesis' is one of the research teams that competed for the prize. 'Genesis' is also the first lunar probe to be financed through crowdfunding, with most of the total USD 100m investment financed through individual contributions, of which 40m came from the pockets of the SpaceIL president himself.
From another perspective, the emergence of commercial rockets represented by SpaceX has clearly defined the division of labor within space exploration, including that of lunar landing.
The ability of a research team to land a spacecraft successfully on the Moon has nothing to do with the rocket carrying capacity of the country represented by the research team.
The successful lunar landing of 'Genesis' proves two things: first, with more and more attention from tech companies being directed towards the space economy, a lunar landing is no longer dependent on the "pooling of national resources"; second, with the division of labor in space exploration becoming better defined, powerful players such as NASA are losing many of their accumulated advantages.
The development of technology throughout the world generally follows a similar pattern. Starting off as state or military development, it then gradually transitions to privately funded and commercial, from which point accessibility expands. For NASA, it means a need to accumulate new advantages.
The so-called second wave of competitive lunar landings is no different – like a new season on the sporting field, where gaps formed by players over the previous season are narrowed allowing them to set off again on a more even footing.
Short-sighted lunar vision: What is the value of a Moon landing?
Once more we face an age-old question: today, with no threat of a Cold War, what is the significance of the further development in space technology represented by lunar landings?
On this issue, opinion and debate abound, and there will always be some to raise questions like: why don't we use the money spent on lunar landings to build schools in the countryside? The answers to such questions follow a similar line of thought: Moon landings are training exercises for Mars landings, the latter likely to be the next abode of human beings; aerospace technology can promote the development of basic science including communications and navigation; the space race represents the second Age of Exploration – not being involved would be the equivalent of completely missing the boat, for instance, on shipbuilding technology.
Today, let's put aside these long-term benefits to cast a more short-sighted gaze at Moon exploration. What's likely to happen? In this highly commercialized second "race to the Moon", a landing on the Moon gets assigned commercial value.
Let's start with two pieces of data.
First - US$4.28 million. This is the price of one gram of soil on the Moon.
During the 'Apollo' program, astronauts brought back 382kg of lunar rocks. They became the official property of the U.S. government, meaning that sale of the rocks in any form is strictly forbidden. However, the U.S. gave some away as gifts to other countries and state governors. Following a series of gifts, theft and misplacements, some of these rocks found their way into the marketplace, with US$4.28 million the sale price per gram this January at world-famous auction house Sotheby's.
Second – US$250 million. This is the estimated price of a private lunar circumnavigation with SpaceX.
People may remember that in September last year, SpaceX announced Yusaku, founder of a Japanese online fashion retail website, as its first customer of private lunar circumnavigation. In an interview, Musk and Yusaku revealed that Yusaku's contribution to Musk's rockets equated to 5% of the total R&D cost. Based on this, a circumnavigation around the Moon carrying six to eight passengers has been calculated to cost about US$250 million.
These two pieces of data prove two things. First, the Moon exerts a strong 'primal' influence on and attraction to us as human beings, thus assigning commercial value to anything connected with her. Second, space tourism is clearly on the agenda, and trips intended to either orbit or land on the Moon are highly attractive projects.
Indeed, this is the case. In an interview with CNN, SpaceIL mentioned that they plan to sell "sponsored ads" and naming rights on video and image data transmitted back to Earth. Virgin Galaxy, the space tourism enterprise derived from Virgin Airlines, recently sent a real-life employee into space. It is clear that even if lunar research incurs a loss, there are ways to quickly recover the costs.
Exploring the Moon on an equal footing: What's possible on the Moon today?
More crucial, with developments in science and technology we are now able to accomplish far more in our exploration of the Moon compared to half a century ago.
First of all, we have a better understanding of the Moon's magnetic field.
By studying the rocks brought back by the 'Apollo' program, scientists have discovered that the magnetic field around the Moon is less than 1/1000ththe strength of that around Earth. Furthermore, after calculations, scientists believe there used to be a magnetic field around the Moon that later disappeared.
The main task of the 'Genesis' lunar landing is to measure whether the magnetic field intensity of rocks on the Moon is equal to that assumed by means of equipment used to measure the magnetic field of ancient volcanic rocks.
In the wake of more Moon landings, and as lunar exploration becomes increasingly commercialized, more scientific validation for questions such as that of the magnetic field will be conducted on the lunar surface.
There is also the ongoing exploration of water and oxygen.
Interstellar migration is the ultimate goal of all space exploration. In August last year, NASA officially announced that it had confirmed the existence of water on the lunar surface, meaning that the Moon is endowed with the very same resource we rely on as human beings for our survival!
This has prompted various research institutions to attempt further landings on the Moon to carry out research related to the survival of the human race.
More importantly, there is the precious mineral resource, Helium-3.
Helium-3 is a clean, safe and highly efficient nuclear fusion fuel for power generation that is very difficult to acquire on Earth. For this reason, scientists have dubbed it "pure energy". Some have even claimed that 100 tons of Helium-3 could provide the total amount of energy required by the Earth for a whole year.
This resource exists in the soil of the Moon. If future conditions are ripe and we fail to find a better alternative to oil, the Moon could become the "Persian Gulf" of space.
In order to conduct further investigation of the Moon's resources, clearly the best option is to actually reach its surface. One key project in China's ongoing lunar exploration plan is to measure the thickness of the soil on the Moon's surface and research further the total volume of Helium-3.
It is precisely due to these ripe conditions that there is heightened demand for lunar landings.
That the lunar landing model is now sufficiently commercial invites involvement by both state and private actors, so that nations and even companies without space engineering capabilities can now participate in lunar exploration by way alone of financial contributions to the projects. In such way, both cost recovery as well as human understanding of this mysterious satellite will be accelerated.
Commercial Moon landings are building for the human race a metaphorical "stairway to heaven", an interstellar path to a virgin land, with gold miners already collecting the fares before reaping the harvest.
This article was edited by the TMTPOST team.