Cold Surface, Hot Market: Commercial Lunar Gains Traction
For anyone with their finger on the pulse of the entrepreneurial space race, it should come as no surprise that the Moon is becoming prime real estate these days. As interest and investment in commercial space heats up, and as government agencies and commercial companies alike focus their attention beyond low-Earth orbit,competition between multiple private companies looking to provide access to the moon is creating a market for commercial lunar services.
At last month’s 33rd annual Space Symposium, Blue Origin president Robert Meyerson announced that the company is capable of soft-landing large payloads on the Moon’s surface. Meyerson’s comments reinforce Blue Origin’s standing offer to partner with NASA in order to develop a lunar delivery service and permanent settlement. If NASA’s looking for a commercial lunar partner––and signs indicate they are––Jeff Bezos’ much-buzzed-about “Blue Moon” lunar lander is surely a top-of-mind contender.
But billionaire-backed Blue Origin is only one of the new entrants in the race to establish regular, reliable commercial lunar services. There are now multiple private companies determined to demonstrate that they’ve got what it takes to kickstart commerce on the surface of the Moon.
Related Reading: Moon Prospects - Demand for Lunar Services (PDF)
Commercial lunar services are about to take off in a big way.
The commercial space industry is at an inflection point. It is inflecting. It may already have inflected. As a critical segment of the entrepreneurial space landscape, the commercial side of the moon will soon bear witness to dramatic competition between a cast of companies, each vying for their share of the pie. Commercial lunar services and logistics will represent a significant source of revenue in the years ahead, and will address demand across multiple markets––from resource extraction, to research and exploration, to infrastructural support and supply. According to market analysis, projected revenues from commercial lunar could total nearly $2B by 2020 (Anderson, Moon Prospect, 9).
As they are with many other space market segments, NASA is a key industry partner for companies looking to carve a niche in commercial lunar services. The agency has expressed strong interest in developing the capabilities of private space ventures, and is officially interested in using commercial partners to deliver payloads to the Moon’s surface. NASA posted a Request for Information (RFI) to the Federal Business Opportunities website on May 1st, which will remain open to submissions until June 2nd. While it is uncertain whether a formal solicitation for contract proposals is on the horizon, this is certainly a positive step towards commercial lunar partnership.
NASA will be a key early customer in this new market, so ventures focused on commercial lunar services are eager to prove that they’ve got the technology––and acumen––to compete for the agency’s business. There are a number of companies vying for a near-term contract with NASA, including Space Angels-funded venture Astrobotic Technology. Astrobotic, Blue Origin, and some GLXP contenders will play a crucial role in demonstrating the commercial value of lunar services and logistics, while simultaneously reinforcing the potential of the broader commercial space industry.
Beyond Blue: Astrobotic is a strong competitor in the commercial lunar subsegment.
Space Angels-funded Astrobotic has long recognized the lunar market opportunity, and has taken steps to establish themselves as a leader within the growing commercial lunar landscape. Now, according to CEO John Thornton, Astrobotic is still in the best position to be awarded a near-term NASA lunar mission: “We can do a moon landing for NASA a year earlier than Blue Origin––for a fraction of the price.” Astrobotic’s preparedness stems from their team’s deep industry knowledge (the company evolved out of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics lab, one of the world’s leading robotics research institutions), and confidence in their rigorously-tested lunar lander technology. Astrobotic also recently secured strategic partnerships with Airbus and DHL, which will each provide logistical and engineering support on critical early missions. A history of contracts with NASA doesn’t hurt their prospects, either: Astrobotic was one of threerecipients of the agency’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) funding initiative in 2014.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander was unveiled in June of 2016, during the company’s time as competitors in the Google Lunar XPrize. While Astrobotic formally left the XPrize competition in December 2016, their dedication to and pursuit of their broader vision has lead to continued technological progress and refinement.
Astrobotic recently announced their latest joint project with Carnegie Mellon University: a revolutionary micro-rover that NASA will use to explore the Moon, Mars, and parts beyond. The “CubeRover” will weigh a mere 2 kilograms––less than five pounds. This is a far cry from NASA’s original LRVs (Lunar Rover Vehicles), which met the Moon’s surface during Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972. These iconic rovers weighed in at 463 pounds––which is actually pretty light for a vehicle that measured over ten feet long and nearly eight feet wide.
Astrobotic and CMU’s micro-rover will be much smaller and more nimble than roving predecessors. Just as CubeSats and larger satellites have their own unique capabilities, the CubeRovers aren’t intended to replace larger rovers on exploratory missions. However, small terrestrial vehicles will undoubtedly complement and expand upon current tech capabilities. The new, small rover will be cost-effective to manufacture, and––crucially––standardized. Astrobotic’s Chairman William “Red” Whittaker believes that the vehicle they are developing with CMU will have the same impact on planetary surface exploration that the CubeSat form factor had on the satellite industry: “In planetary robotics, small is the next big thing.”
There’s room for (more than) two in the commercial lunar landscape.
Competition is a leading indicator of growth, particularly in nascent markets. While there is still much to be proven, increased competition demonstrates demand and lends credibility to what visionaries have been working toward all along. The moon is a big market and there will be room for multiple delivery and logistics solutions––just like heavy lift and dedicated small launchers here on Earth.
Bezos’ Blue Moon lander is being designed with eventual human settlement in mind, and is capable of soft-landing 10,000 pounds of payload on the Moon’s surface. There’s no doubt that this heft will be appealing as we build permanent settlements off-planet. But is there a nearer-term market for such robust capabilities? Blue Moon’s large upper limit may, in fact, limit its marketability in the short term––it will require heavy-lift launch vehicles, such as NASA’s behemoth SLS (Space Launch System), ULA’s Atlas 5, or New Origin’s New Glenn, and it may be difficult to fully utilize all 10,000 pounds of payload potential in the short term.
Astrobotic’s John Thornton sees the upsides to emerging competition in the lunar services landscape, citing increased investor attention and potential ramp up opportunities with big-name competitors: “For starters, it's more validation of the market. Secondly, it means we have more of an industry pushing NASA for commercial lunar.”
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The next few years will be an exciting time for commercial lunar logistics companies.
As NASA signals its interest in a timely return to lunar landings, the race to bring commercial services to the moon is only just beginning. While NASA’s RFI outlines a prospective commercial lunar launch timeline beginning as early as FY2018, Blue Origin has stated that they could fly their first lunar mission in 2020, but it would rely on a partnership with NASA to achieve this goal. On the other hand, Astrobotic is aiming to deliver on their vision by 2019, and is on-target to meet that deadline. As the months unfold, investors and space enthusiasts alike can look forward to an exciting period of development in the commercial lunar landscape.
Astrobotic, Blue Origin, and other private companies are intent upon bringing their services to the nascent lunar market. Given that both sides––the emerging lunar logistics companies and their key initial customer, NASA––are eager to establish a commercial presence on the moon, at this point it appears to be more a question of “when,” not “if.”
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1. Anderson, Chad. Moon Prospect: Demand for Commercial Lunar Services. July 2013. PDF.