Space exploration will open up in 2018

Eye-catching space missions could boost dreams of setting up bases on celestial bodies


If all goes well, on November 26th 2018 NASA’s InSight unmanned spacecraft will slice into Mars’s thin atmosphere at a blistering 3.2km (2 miles) a second, open a parachute, fire retrorockets, jettison its heat shield and softly land. It will be the culmination of an exciting year of space travel. Early in 2018, Google hopes to announce the winners of a $30m prize for the first firm, or firms, to place a robotic lander on Earth’s Moon, remotely drive a rover 500 metres (550 yards) and transmit video to Earth. And before 2018 ends, SpaceX, a Californian firm, expects to have sent two tourists around the Moon. They will be the first humans beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972. 

Some hope that the missions will, in various ways, advance efforts to set up robotic and—eventually—human bases on the Moon and Mars. The goal is to become a “multi-world species”, says Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, a Florida-based competitor for Google’s Lunar X prize, as the race is called. 

That day is still many years away, if it arrives at all. Naysayers point out that there is probably nothing valuable enough on either the Moon or Mars to justify the enormous expense of moving humans there. And the obstacles to doing so are formidable. But Elon Musk, SpaceX‘s boss, is aiming to send spacecraft to Mars by 2022 (construction of the first of these is due to start within a matter of months), and manned missions two years later. In 2018, SpaceX’s telegenic lunar fly-by will capture the world’s imagination. Boosters hope it will lend weight to calls to colonise celestial bodies.

For that, knowledge will be needed. Moon Express’s lander for 2018 will carry a “lighthouse” navigation beacon to aid future trips. In a second lunar mission in 2019, the firm plans to set up “a robotic village” to prospect the ground. As for Mars, InSight will burrow five metres underground to detect resources, quakes and temperatures, revealing whether humans could survive by mining supplies, building seismically safe shelters and harvesting geothermal energy, says Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s top scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Space for everyone

Because private firms drive much of this effort, the cost of space travel is falling. Moon Express’s bid for Google’s prize will cost only about $10m; Tokyo-based iSpace, one of four other competitors, has earned as much selling advertising on its lunar rover. In a first for a private company, SpaceX plans to begin shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station in May 2018, undercutting what Russia now charges and raising capital for human flights to Mars in the 2030s. Phil Larson, a former White House space adviser, points out that NASA estimates it would have spent nearly $1.4bn to build the Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX produced for a third of the cost. He reckons space fares from tourists will cover SpaceX’s costs for its moonshot.

Some firms are convinced that there is money to be made off-world. Moon Express plans to return a profitable haul of Moon rocks to Earth in 2020 for sale as “Moon dust” engagement rings and the like. It and iSpace hope eventually to process lunar oxygen, hydrogen and other resources into air, water and rocket fuel for profitable sale on the Moon to spacefarers. Planetary Resources, an American firm, and Deep Space Industries, an American and Luxembourgish company, hope to mine asteroids for such stuff. Resupplying spacefarers in this way would slash expenses: it costs about $10,000 to loft a kilogram to low-Earth orbit, and far more for points beyond.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbids claiming sovereignty over heavenly bodies, but it does not prohibit owning (and selling) stuff that is extracted. America and recently Luxembourg passed laws that acknowledge the legality of off-world mining. Japan and the United Arab Emirates may follow suit in 2018, says Chris Johnson of the International Institute of Space Law in Paris. 

But this troubles some. By adding to space debris, mining could “damage the fragile environment” of space, frets Stephan Hobe of the Institute of Air and Space Law at Cologne University. Other concerns are more earthbound. One explanation for resistance to mining in space is that countries like Brazil, Chile and Russia fear they will miss out to richer rivals. Critics brandish wording in the Outer Space Treaty that says space’s use should be “for the benefit of all peoples”. Some governments hope this could force space entrepreneurs to share profits or abandon mining, laments Kyle Acierno of iSpace.

There are also basic economics to overcome. Finding a viable way to mine outer space’s plentiful supplies of platinum, for example, would surely lead to a meteoric descent in the price of the metal. Nonetheless one happy side-effect of such an exploit is that it might just save our species, argues Atsushi Mizushima, co-author of a study on the legality of off-world mining. Technology developed by space prospectors may one day be needed to deflect a big rock on a collision course with Earth. Fortunately, that will not be a worry in 2018.

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