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Summary:

Rare metals have suddenly become a hot commodity in products from hybrid vehicles batteries, to wind turbines, to compact fluorescent light bulbs to magnets for electric vehicle motors. Some entrepreneurs think it is time to go to the moon and find those resources.

Smoke-colored moon

Smoke-colored moonI have to admit, when I received an email from Dr. Barney Pell, founder of Powerset, a search startup that was acquired by Microsoft for $100 million in July 2008, I was incredulous. Pell and his two co-founders, Naveen Jain (Infospace) and Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards have started a new company called Moon Express (yup, you heard that right) to develop a space vehicle that will in turn allow the company to tap into mineral resources on the lunar surface.

The trio met as members of the board of Singularity University, which is based in the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley. A year ago, they started the company with some initial funding from Pell and Jain, but they have since raised a little bit of angel funding. With seven full-time employees and a handful of contractors, the company isn’t looking for big round of funding just yet. It is all in the future, Pell said.

Pell spent a large portion of his working life at NASA before leaving to work in Silicon Valley. He worked on projects for the Mars Exploration Rover mission along with several other projects related to autonomous systems. He was also involved in the development of one of the first artificial intelligence systems to fly onboard (and control) a deep space probe. “I’m still fully engaged with my day job at Bing, but this is definitely an exciting nights and weekends [almost literally moonlighting] job for me,” Pell wrote.
For now the company has a contract from NASA worth up to $10 million  “for the initial delivery order of the ‘Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD)’ program.” The company is competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, “a competition to place a robot on the Moon’s surface that travels 500 meters and transmits high definition video, images and data back to Earth.”

Moon Express describes itself as a “lunar transportation and data services company created to establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit” and “will be sending a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon for ongoing exploration and commercial development.” What does that mean? “Our big play is to develop a robotic lander to transport things to (and from) the moon,” Pell said. And why would we do that?

“There is eventually going to be a moon rush, because there are a lot of resources on the moon that we will need,” said Pell. Resources like platinum and other metals that are needed for fuel cells and the post-fossil fuel economy. “In the future we want to be able to land the payloads and machines and bring things back,” said Pell. ”We want to be the last mile to the moon.”

Crazy? Absolutely! Impossible? Probably not! There are a growing number of people who believe that with federal funding for our space program getting scarce, the future lies in private-public partnerships. Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s third job (after leading electric car company Tesla and acting as the Chairman of solar installer SolarCity) is heading up SpaceX, which was the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a rocketship. Virgin’s Richard Branson has a similar private space venture.

Rare metals have suddenly become a hot commodity in products from hybrid vehicles batteries, to wind turbines, to compact fluorescent light bulbs to magnets for electric vehicle motors. Particularly now that China, which owns control of 95 percent of rare earth metals, decided to cut its exports of those metals.

Of course governments of China and other emerging economies like India and Brazil have had similar thoughts about tapping into moon’s resources and are spending billions of dollars.

When I asked Pell how he plans to compete with the seemingly unlimited resources of nations, he said that the company has a few tricks up its sleeve that he is going to be sharing at a later stage. And yes, they will be seeking funding, eventually.

Image courtesy of Flickr user peasap

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  1. Back in its day, Infospace caused a huge scandal and purportedly had committed an ethical, if not legal, wrong.
    This same story on TC seems to have more venom. From your perspective, does the involvement of Naveen Jain make this enterprise lose some of its sheen? And honestly, these guys are literally promising us the moon (or pieces of it :) ).
    One more question: How does Microsoft allow an employee to work on projects seemingly unrelated to the company? I guess it is on his own time, so it may be alright. I live in India, and here, these things get us fired (which is why we never court the press :D ).

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    1. I am betting the driving force of this company are Pell and Richards who have legit credibility, as far as I am concerned.

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  2. Excellent to see scientific boundaries being pushed. We all need more blue sky research for the benefit of us all and reaching the moon cost effectively is just one.

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  3. If real Robert Heinlein must be laughing in is grave.

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    1. Thanks Eric. For those of you, who don’t know Heinlein, according to Wikipedia, “for many years, Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke were known as the “Big Three” of science fiction.” He popularized phrases such as Waldo, Grok and “TANSTAAFL: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”

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  4. the “””Google””” Lunar X Prize is already FAILED… just read WHY in my comments posted in this WIRED article! http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/02/lunar-x-prize-teams/ []

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    1. just read the TRUE STORY of the “””Google””” Lunar X Prize here: http://x.co/GqFF (don’t miss it)

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    2. well, I’m too seek funds to start up my NewSpaceAgency … :)

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    3. Thanks. FaceAnswers

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  5. For more info go read “Moon Rush” by Dennis Wingo at Apogeebooks.com This is real, the science is solid, and the economics are feasable.
    Follow me on Twitter @VAXHeadroom

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  6. Maybe the science is sound, but the business model doesn’t seem to be.

    Near as I can tell, the primary source of revenue is the chance to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and then transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.

    A second source of revenue accrues under the terms of the $30M NASA Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program under which the data collected on the Moon can be sold to NASA.

    Unfortunately, neither NASA nor the Google Lunar X-Prize provide advanced payments to fund the rover.

    In essence, Moon Express needs to pay all the development and Moon launch costs up front with seemingly no ongoing revenue stream to assist with cash flow plus win the GLXP against strong competition, including Odyssey Moon, another company formed previously by Moon Express co-founder Bob Richards in order to win the GLXP before they get any revenue.

    One of the founders, or an outside investor needs to kick in 20 – $30 million USD before this can be considered a serious project.

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  7. Olga Altstatt Saturday, April 16, 2011

    You would also need CEO robot with reconfigerd BRAIN to keep job going and keep an eye on the robots that actually deal with minerelas. It doesn’t mean that the CEO on the EARTH loses it’s function. But hush reality on the Moon will stop him going there!

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  8. Naveen Jain (http://www.forbes.com/finance/lists/54/2000/LIR.jhtml?passListId=54&passYear=2000&passListType=Person&uniqueId=7I27&datatype=Person) and Barney Pell (http://www.crunchbase.com/person/barney-pell) are both visionary dynamos – great to see them teaming up on such a groundbreaking venture.

    – Pete Kistler

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  9. It’s good to see more private entrepreneurs venturing into space exploration. I’ve noticed that USA government funding for space exploration is drying up, and looking at the USA government fiscal situation that funding could dry up completely. The best hope is for private entrepreneurs to pick up the job, and even better they’ll probably be more efficient and effective. My compliments and good wishes to Moon Express!

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  10. For Some Entrepreneurs, Moon Is Money http://t.co/JZbXDbBE

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