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Moon Express sees money in moon rocks

Angel-funded, 13-person company is building a robotic lunar lander.

The Moon Express development platform, at the company test facility near Moffett Field. Steve Jurvetson, 2008

What's a search engine geek doing in the space business? Barney Pell, CTO and co-founder of Powerset, a search technology company that was acquired by Microsoft, has for the last year been working on building a robotic spacecraft to land on the moon, as the co-founder of a new company called Moon Express. (Pell also co-founded StockMaster, which was acquired by Red Herring when I worked there.)

It turns out that Pell is an old space hack. He has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of Cambridge and worked on the AI program for Deep Space 1, a NASA probe that tested several autonomous space exploration technologies. Moon Express is a return home to him, but it's also his most audacious venture, even more so than his search business was. And that was a real flyer.

Moon Express is building a robotic spacecraft that can take a payload of up to 100 kilograms from lunar orbit down to the moon. It's fully automated, using what Pell says are (presumably his) AI algorithms to land safely. It does not have a return capability, but the mission of the company is nonetheless very much about getting stuff back from the moon.

Why? There is, Pell says, gold in them hills. Or, more accurately, platinum on the plains. Asteroids laden with precious materials, like platinum, have been landing on the surface of the moon for billions of years. They're just waiting to be harvested. Pell did not explain exactly how that harvesting would be done, although he maintains that the cost of developing an automated lunar platinum mining operation, including the Earth-side infrastructure to support it, would cost about $20 billion, which is less than opening a new terrestrial mine, he says.

There's also an abundance of water in the moon's soil, which can be used for life support on the moon or be extracted into component parts for rocket fuel back at Earth (you can park it in an orbiting depot). And then there's Helium-3, which might be usable in as-yet-unbuilt fusion reactors. Transporting clonesicles to the lunar mining camp is not included in Pell's projections.

Pell doesn't see Moon Express getting into the mining business directly. The company is based on more of a sell-the-shovels model. It'll help mining companies land their gear, and charge them for it. "It'll be the biggest ROI in history," Pell says.

Even if it doesn't become a bona fide mining services company soon, Moon Express has a not-ridiculous start-up balance sheet. It will cost about $40 million to build a lander, buy it a ride on a Falcon 9 rocket (which will fling it toward the moon), and pay for the vehicle that will insert it into orbit, Pell says. Customers will pay $10 million to $20 million for the trip (one customer has already agreed to pay about $5 million to deliver a telescope to land on the far side of the moon); plus there's start-up help in the form of $20 million of Lunar X-Prize money from Google and $10 million in challenge-related grants from the NASA Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program.

Pell obviously believes that the time is right for a private enterprise to make a moon delivery truck. His experience at NASA left him with an appreciation for a motto inside the agency: "As only NASA can." The space agency exists, he says, to push the frontiers of space science. Once what a NASA program can do becomes "easy," it's time for NASA to exit the business. And companies like Moon Express to take over. "It is rocket science," Pell says, "but it's not new rocket science."