Emerging Technologies: Exploring the Lunar Economy

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What is the Emerging Technologies Webinar series?

The Emerging Technologies webinar series offer unparalleled insights into cutting-edge advancements across the space sector, fostering a deeper understanding of the rapidly evolving space ecosystem, and empowering professionals to stay at the forefront of innovation in this pivotal industry. Co-ordinated by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the University of Glasgow, each webinar explores a unique thematic area with respect to the sectors emerging technologies.

Our upcoming webinar on 15 May 2024 will focus on new technologies, and the innovation cycle – learn more and sign up here.

Exploring the Lunar Economy

The last event focussed on Exploring the Lunar Economy, covering important thematic areas such as lunar market trends, funding, governance and ethics, sustainability, and engineering. The recording can be accessed here.

The lunar economy is a rapidly growing area. NASA and ESA have significant programmes related to the lunar economy, and activities are taking place on a global scale, with China and India both having recent lunar missions.

The presentations over the course of the webinar made it abundantly clear that the ambitions of the lunar economy have changed in recent years. Previously, we had limited aspirations to explore the lunar environment, but now we identify ample opportunities for new technologies to enable us, humans, to explore and remain on the moon. A whole lunar ecosystem is rapidly emerging and its scope must be defined.

Exploring lunar market trends

Yann Perrot, Senior Manager at PwC: Space Practice, outlined that currently 100% of lunar missions are financed by governments (bar ispace’s Hakuto-R lander (2023)) but this is due to change. Yan outlined significant growth areas including in transportation to the moon via rovers and landers (as well as space tug vehicles to support vicinity logistics from the lunar surface to Gateway or Lagrange points) and in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) including elements and minerals for life support, propellants, manufacturing and ground infrastructure.

It is anticipated that both transportation and ISRU will represent key economic drivers, at least for the medium term with markets expected to grow to ~$8-10bn p/a, and to ~$10bn p/a by 2040, respectively. Habitation, construction and manufacturing could also reach $5bn p/a in mature phases.

There is a current lack of a commercially-enabled business cases for growth. Why? A small number of countries drive investment in lunar missions through their institutional programmes, and the lunar economy is dependent on these. Today, the potential for commercially-driven lunar exploration activities relies on the advancement of non-space-focused research areas, specifically in robotics and energy storage.

What are perspectives of funders with respect to lunar economy innovation?

Henny Sands, Head of Telecoms at the UK Space Agency (UKSA) also described how existing markets are changing. Satellite Communication generates over $150bn a year in global revenues, and the UK has a growing satellite communications industry with services contributing £11.8bn to the UKs economy. We are seeing a rapidly changing market, with increasing demand and available technologies coming together.

Henny noted that a growth in new technologies, changing relevance of satellite communications to providing bandwidth, the creation of new and/or transformation of existing markets, and the creation of opportunities to develop new capabilities are driving the emerging commercial opportunities across the lunar economy.

The UKSA Telecoms Team deliver through the ESA ARTES Programme (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems) and aim to catalyse investment into the UK Space Sector, deliver missions and capabilities that benefit society and championing the power of space to improve lives. The UK subscribed £1.8bn to ESA at the Council of Ministers in 2022, with £190m subscribed specifically to the ARTES programme. Within that, £51m is subscribed to the Moonlight Programme which offers investment to industry to ensure the UK is at the forefront of first generation of commercial lunar and deep science communications, enabling downstream business applications and users on Earth at reduced cost and complexity.

What are the broader factors to consider with respect to developing a lunar economy?

Chris Spedding, Growth and Impact Manager at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), provided insight on innovations with respect to ethical, governance and regulatory considerations in mind. There is a significant need to consider various aspects in greater detail before we have a sustained lunar economy, including, for example, access to shelter and oxygen. One area needing significant strengthening is pro-active, global engagement with relevant treaties and frameworks under safety, communication, de-confliction and interoperability. Chris noted that there needs to be a consensus on decommissioning, lunar traffic management system and processes for negotiation for rights to resources to enable a sustainable a lunar economy.

During the Q&A, it was asked: ‘would some of the products developed for the lunar economy be able to be used to enhance our on-earth environment?’ Henny noted that this question goes to the heart of why we are going to the Moon and this needs to be defined still. Charlie Young, Spaceflight safety specialist at Plastron, and Product Director at Near Zero by Design (N0/D), noted that resource extraction is so expensive that we would probably be unable to bring it back to Earth; we are more likely to be going to the moon for exploration and the advancement of novel technology and innovation including knowledge. This raises some question around how IP regulation functions if technology is developed on the lunar surface.

How can creative engineering propel the future lunar economy?

Charlie Young discussed the need to embed sustainability into product design, which is something Near Zero by Design specialise in. N0/D is a data driven space business that delivers services to make calculating carbon impact across the space sector simple, and provides capability based on data that influences the design cycle; its goal is to make the space sector the leading sector for sustainability, encouraging near zero by design by ensuring every space company has a regularly updated quantification of their environmental impact, and a roadmap to improve it.

Charlie emphasised the crucial role of creativity and product design in addressing issues, exploring solutions, and employing processes to materialise ideas. Designs are shaped by quantifiable aspects such as functionality and utility, as well as intangible qualities like aesthetics, novelty, and surprise. In the realm of the space industry, aesthetics, though a nice-to-have, take a backseat to functionality. Charlie noted that SpaceX takes an innovative approach, having introduced reusability – something deemed unattainable two decades ago, and something which emphases the speed of progression in the sector. This novelty is not just groundbreaking but also remarkably useful, enabling missions to the moon and the deployment of satellites into orbit.

Charlie noted that it is imperative to incorporate environmental considerations into the design phase; Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) impact is often an overlooked afterthought. Safety, quality, and ESG factors should be foundational principles in product design, influencing decisions on materials, processes, and end-products. Adopting such concurrent design principles in the space sector could lead to significant cost and time savings and enhance our environment. Embracing an integrated design approach that incorporates life cycle analysis allows for iterative improvements in materials, consumables, and infrastructure, contributing to a more sustainable and efficient space industry.

How can launch operations enhance the future lunar economy?

Moving on to launch operations: Alex Harding, Technical Project Manager, Viasat (previously Inmarsat) discussed InRange, a new launch support service from Viasat, providing satellite-based telemetry relay data communications link services for vehicles in the early phases of launch. InRange will bring additional launch efficiency and flexibility in operations, accelerating the path to launch.

At present, telemetry is downlinked to the operation centre during launches, via ground stations at the launch site and across the launch path. This can bring several challenges, including for example, a heavy dependency on multiple down-range ground infrastructure that is often not operated by the same company; launch sites and trajectories being limited to geographical locations with available down-range infrastructure; telemetry ‘blackouts’ where there is no line-of-site coverage; and unoptimised trajectories which lead to more fuel burn and reduced mass to orbit.

Viasat has L-Band Geostationary satellite coverage around the world. Because these satellites are in geostationary orbit, one satellite alone can see 1/3 of the World. InRange can augment (e.g. fill data gaps) or replace the use of downlink infrastructure, enabling enhanced flexibility to launch, creating new trajectory opportunities, enabling fuel savings and greater payload mass to orbit, opening up new launch site location opportunities, and plugging the gap created by the forthcoming NASA TDRS Retirement.

Can we de-risk lunar-based projects?

Niel Barton and Stuart Mackrell, both Directors at Origin Safety, spoke about the role Origin Safety can play in supporting de-risking lunar-based projects through consulting on risk and safety. There have been some missions that have previously gone wrong, with examples given for Ariane V (1996) which had a hardware exception and exploded 40 seconds after launch, costing $500m; and a satellite collision in 2009 between Iridium 33 and a derelict Russian military satellite, causing >2,000 large debris fragments and the ISS crew to take refuge inside the docked Soyuz rendezvous spacecraft. Lunar based systems will need to be: interoperable; maintainable; underpinned by a safety case; fault tolerant; compliant with evolving safety regulations and standards; able to meet reliability targets; and be environmentally qualified (e.g. temperature, pressures). Origin Safety can support mission design and launch by identifying hazards and risks; ensuring safety and reliability; establishing a safety case and realising benefits.

Where are we with Lunar Pathfinder?

Phil Davies, Lunar Pathfinder Business Development Manager, from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) talked about Lunar Pathfinder; this is a data relay satellite, commercially owned and operated by SSTL, and the first node of the ESA Moonlight project. More lunar missions are on the horizon and a lunar based network is needed to reduce the dependency on returning data to Earth, and to enable data capture. Many missions require data relay, for example, a rover in a shadowed crater in the South Pole searching for water will be unable to return data directly to Earth due to lack of line of sight. It is anticipated that a full constellation providing higher speed and navigation services will come with time through the decade.

Lunar Pathfinder will be launched in late 2025 with services available from early 2026; the launch will be via NASA as part of the CLPS CS-3 mission. A Blue Ghost vehicle will place Lunar Pathfinder into its target Elliptical Frozen Orbit (ELFO). The satellite will offer a moon link in S-band at up to 4Mbps, and an Earth link in X-band at 5Mbps. In support of future missions, Lunar Pathfinder will be co-embarked with the US Department of Energy’s Lunar Surface Electromagnetic Experiment at Night (LuSEE-Night), the first operational radio telescope on the far side of the moon; LuSEE-Night will be serviced by Lunar Pathfinder.

It is uncertain whether Lunar Pathfinder will deliver HD video; the design phase for Moonlight will start in 2024 and it may use higher data rates than Pathfinder will provision, including the use of Ka instead of X band. Excitingly, ESA are sponsoring some experimentation on the mission, so in support of future missions, Lunar Pathfinder will host payloads including a GNSS Weak Signal payload, a Laser Retro Reflector, and a Radiation Monitor.

How can we ensure our exploration of the lunar economy is sustainable?

Jayshree Kottapalli, a Senior Industry Advisor from TCS, posed several thought-provoking questions around the development of a sustainable lunar economy while we are struggling with our own on-Earth environment. Jayshree asked whether we have the regulatory and compliance checks in place to ensure proper boundaries and usage; whether we have the capability to contain any damage done across the lunar environment, and who is responsible for any consequences of lunar exploration that may affect Earth? Recognising that the moon may be utilised for critical services such as power generation, communications, transportation, and medicine, Jayshree posed that we need to consider who is accountable for the development, governance and maintenance of these, whose interests are being developed or represented, how do we maintain peace on the Moon when we are struggling to do so in clearly defined political boundaries on Earth, and who is responsible for aspects such as on-Earth safety as a consequence of lunar exploration?

An example of novel lunar-based innovation: affordable lunar landers

Charis Kosmas, Founder and CEO of Lunar Cargo P.C. presented a video of Lunar Cargo P.C’s Momentum Absorption Catcher for Express Deliveries on Non-Atmospheric Somata (MACEDONAS), a mechanical lander that is applicable to all celestial bodies with no atmosphere. This absorbs kinetic energy of incoming objects through its wires via mechanical tension, meaning that no fuel is required. MACEDONAS is suitable for transferring infrastructure, including small rovers (few 10s of kg); the technology is scalable so in the future it could accommodate heavier rovers through on-moon construction.

Charis also presented a video of Lunar Cargo’s P.C’s Oversized Payload Lander on Non-Atmospheric Somata (OPLONAS). This is a cylindrical spacecraft which includes service elements, communication software and payload. The spacecraft arrives with a normal launcher to low lunar orbit, and is then spinned for up to 8 revolutions p/s. There is one landing site for OPLONASO on the Moon, called Ocean of the Storms, which has a span of 2,500km; once landed, the lander is inflated and it can continue its journey to the location of the client, where it will then deflate and enable the removal of the payload. Charis is interested in collaborating with members of the community to continue developing these technologies (email in speaker list).

Final thoughts from our speakers

Some final thoughts from the speakers included:

  • Our off-world networks will span the solar system and enable the connection of every human, everywhere, with increased in-lunar orbit, enabling enhanced human exploration of the solar system and delivering profound cultural change on what it means to be human.
  • There are lunar stakeholders across the planet, who may not be actively involved in space-related research, or know how to input to this space-related research and development, and we need to do our part to draw more non-space specific innovators into the conversation to support innovation.
  • There are unresolved issues in relation to developing a lunar economy, for example labour law: how do you treat someone who has breached their contract, and transport staff home, to Earth, within these parameters?
  • Some other thought-provoking questions included: How do we approach the development of a lunar economy while we have so many challenges in our on-Earth environment? And, how do we convince the public that we require CR&D in the lunar environment?

If you are interested in contributing to upcoming Emerging Technology webinars, or have any questions, please contact ke@sa.catapult.org.uk

Talks & Speakers
  • Market trends and challenges in the development of a lunar economy.
    • Yann Perrot – Senior Manager, PwC – Space Practice.
  • Funding perspective and opportunities to drive innovation around the lunar economy.
  • Innovating for a lunar economy with ethical, governance and regulatory considerations in mind.
    • Chris Spedding – Growth and Impact Manager, BASIC (British American Security Information Council).
  • Engineering as the creative force behind the future lunar economy.
    • Charlie Young – Spaceflight safety specialist and Near Zero by Design Product Director, Near Zero by Design.
  • InRange: Accelerating the Path to Launch.
    • Alex Harding – Technical Project Manager, Viasat.
  • Origin Safety – De-risking your Lunar Project.
    • Stuart Mackrell and Neil Barton – Directors, Origin Safety.
  • Lunar Pathfinder.
  • Sustainable Lunar Economy – A Responsible Approach.
    • Jayshree Kottapalli – Senior Industry Advisor CMI CTO, TCS
  • Affordable Lunar Landers.