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Astronomical profits: The race to mine the moon heats up

Catch Team | First published: 7 December 2016, 23:04 IST

When Moon Express received permission from the US Government to undertake a mission to the moon, they became the first private organisation authorised to travel beyond the Earth's orbit. The achievement was a fillip to the startup, putting it in pole position to land an unmanned probe on the moon and win Google's $25 million Lunar XPRIZE.

However, landing on the moon is only the start for Moon Express - the end goal is to actually mine it. And they're not the only ones looking to make astronomical sums of money outside of Earth's orbit.

Also read - Indian-American's 'Moon Express' will take human remains to Moon!

The new space race

While the concept of exploring space to mine for resources has mostly been restricted to movies, books and the dreams of billionaire entrepreneurs, things changed on 25 November, 2015. That was the date on which Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law.

"The Act gave American space exploration companies ownership over anything they mined in space."

The Act gave American space exploration companies ownership over anything they mined in space. The new law set off a gold rush as companies sprang up in the US, seemingly overnight, all hoping to make a buck off the space treasures in Earth's neighbourhood.

This November, Luxembourg also announced that they would be introducing a similar law to America's. In doing so the tiny country is hoping to become the focal point of private space exploration in Europe.

Also read - Jupiter's icy moon Europa may harbour life: NASA

The new law will come into effect sometime in early 2017. Luxembourg will not be the last country to ease their laws on space exploration for private companies either. After all, the resources on the moon alone are estimated to be worth, at a conservative estimate, in the vicinity $150 quadrillion.

But even as legislation worldwide eases, there are already companies primed and ready to make a killing in space.

The major players

With Moon Express receiving permission to land a mission on the moon, you'd imagine they'd be the furthest along in the commercial space exploration race. This isn't the case though.

The ones who will see green the fastest are the companies who will actually transport private companies to the celestial bodies they intend to mine. As of now the most likely winners here are Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX whose ambitious plans and spirit of innovation look set to dramatically slash the cost of space travel.

However, while these companies fine tune their technology, two huge companies are biding their time and waiting for D-Day.

" Deep Space Industries & Planetary Resources: Two huge companies are biding their time and waiting for D-Day."

The first among these is Deep Space Industries who are building unmanned vehicles that are capable of extracting resources from the icy and rocky environs of asteroids. The company announced in November that they intend to start prospecting near-Earth asteroids in 2017 with an aim to actually begin mining by the end of the decade.

As of now Deep Space's primary competitor is Larry Page-backed Planetary Resources. Planetary Resources, who are operating in the same space, actually launched its first satellite last year from the International Space Station. With all their sensors for their future probes currently being tested, Planetary Resources hopes to have their first mining operation up and running by 2020.

The company's commercial partnership with the Luxembourg government - securing $25 million in funding as part of this - has also helped them gain a valuable advantage.

First published: 7 December 2016, 23:04 IST