18 January 2011

Mining the Moon

Mining the Moon for Water:
Excerpt from FULL STORY at:

The moon has water, and lots of it. Permanently shadowed craters at both poles have likely been trapping and accumulating water ice for billions of years, recent research has shown.  
These concentrated stores are a precious resource that could revolutionize space travel, some scientists and entrepreneurs have argued. Lunar ice can be mined, split into its component hydrogen and oxygen and transformed into rocket fuel, which could then be sold to spacecraft from orbiting "gas stations."  Such an arrangement could spur a wave of space travel and exploration, the argument goes, since spaceships wouldn't have to lug all the fuel they need from Earth.  One firm that wants to make this happen is Shackleton Energy Co. SEC is serious; it plans to launch robotic scouting missions to the lunar poles within four years, and hopes to be selling propellant in orbit by the end of the decade.
...Our analysis shows it is about 15 times cheaper to launch any mass from the moon to LEO than from the Earth.  Lower-cost propellants in space will transform access to and invigorate operations in space. Importantly, our business model indicates this can be realistically done within the decade. Launch providers will now be able to use smaller, cheaper launch vehicles that do not carry excess fuel. They can now get that extra fuel from our orbiting "gas stations." What is very encouraging is that current space treaties and law permit commercial operations on the moon, so the opportunity is wide open to anyone.
...Initially, a crew of 6-12 operators will be trained and deployed to the LEO stations to fine-tune all required operations. When risk reduction and training is complete, an initial crew of 6-8 will descend to the lunar surface mining area and set up camp....Initially, the lunar operating base will be relatively small to accommodate about 6-8 crew for 24/7 operations. The startup crew may have to spend a year on the moon. Operations crews will subsequently be staged at 6-month intervals for normal operations, but we will have frequent transit flights back and forth to LEO/moon for resupply, contingency and medical issues.  We will employ maximum use of inflatable structures for the habitat and modular high-power nuclear power supplies for all power operations (heating and electricity). The operations concept calls for human-tended robots to do most of the mining, transportation and processing functions with minimal EVAs [extra-vehicular activity]. The base camp will be expanded incrementally to accommodate increased operations as fuel demand increases. We envision providing at least four very large fuel transfers per year to LEO....Preliminary estimates are about $25 billion to reach the point of positive ROI following initial operations in LEO...With a global surface area of over 35 million square kilometers [13.5 million square miles], with proven reserves of over a billion tonnes of water ice, and with the likelihood that initial surface resource processing will be done in relatively small, localized crater areas, it is unlikely that lunar return and resource harvesting will even be detectable to other lunar explorers, scientists or users...To put this in a more practical perspective, the lunar north pole water alone (from LRO radar signature) is enough to launch one shuttle equivalent per day for over 2,300 years. But this is, literally, only the tip of the "iceberg."If the LCROSS data are correct and the ice zone extends as far as the area between each of the poles to a circle at 80 degrees latitude, there is likely to be enough ice on the moon to launch, again at one-per-day, an equivalent shuttle launch for 250 million years.  The moon is a large body with lots of room and lots of resources. There is space enough for everybody on the moon for whatever purposes they envision.

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