US space agency NASA has started accepting applications from private mining companies looking to gain access to resources on the moon.
If science fiction has taught us anything, it is that financial gain is one of the biggest contributors to the future exploration of space. The moon may be the site of the next ‘gold rush’ for helium-3, an element expected to be the fuel of the future.
The project known as CATALYST (Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown) will receive no government funding but will work with private organisations to create regular forms of transport to and from the moon, as well as enable new science and exploration missions of interest to NASA and the larger scientific and academic communities.
As NASA experiences increasing cutbacks from the US government, the agency expects more and more of its continuing research to be funded by more commercial agreements.
Speaking about the project, Greg Williams, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate said: "As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, US industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon.”
One such company is Bigelow Aerospace, which hopes to establish a series of lunar bases and has already worked with NASA on resupplying the International Space Station (ISS).
The company is now looking to take its lunar capsule designs to the moon itself in a bid to commercialise Earth’s only natural satellite.
In an interview with AFP, Michael Gold from Bigelow Aerospace said it’s the only way for space exploration to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Additionally, in this austere (budget) environment, it only makes sense to leverage private-sector investments and capabilities. It's not only the best option, but, because of the lack of federal money, the best option available to move forward drastically,” Gold said.
Huge mineral potential
Citing the commercial potential for the moon, Gold’s suggestion points to the moon’s abundance of an element that is almost non-existent on Earth, helium-3.
What makes the element so sought-after is its potential use for fuelling a nuclear fusion reactor.
While currently still in the realms of science fiction, a nuclear fusion reactor would be the ‘holy grail’ of energy production making limitless, clean energy for very little cost.
As it stands, NASA opening the moon to private companies is legal under international law after the 1967 Outer Space Treaty of the United Nations, which prohibits nations from staking claims to the satellite but no direct reference to companies.