Author: Carlos M. Entrena Utrilla
Adapted by: Alicia Vílchez Bedmar
Today, we start talking about a new topic in our blog. We have already talked at length about our vision to become the backbone of the space economy, and of how we believe the space economy will be built.
However, we haven't really talked about details. So far, it's all been high-level concepts, and some nice pictures like our vision timeline.
I'm not so much of a high-level person, though. I believe discussions are rather more productive when they're about concrete concepts or topics, instead of just ideas.
So, today I want to build up on our discussion about our company vision. Today, I want to start talking about what activities will be part of this space economy we are talking about.
What lunar businesses can we expect?
When will they be around?
How will the Moon look like in 10, 20, 30 years?
Having a clear plan and projections of what the industry will look like are essential to any business plan. Even if we just talked about the various segments, it'll be more useful than just doing a mathematical extrapolation over the number of lunar missions.
So, let's talk about that. Let's start by the short(ish) term: what will the lunar industry be like in 2030?
Table of contents:
2030 is not really that close
I said short term, but 2030 isn't really that close. Just for reference, 2030 is the target for achieving the UN's sustainable development goals (SDGs). Granted, they were set in 2015, and we're roughly halfway there, but the 8 years left until 2030 are enough that people think we should be able to make significant progress towards the SDGs in that time. This should give you an indication of all the things we can do until 2030. In 8 years, we can do a lot, also on the Moon.
2030 is still a long time away. Especially in industries that move at an accelerating pace like the lunar industry. 8 years ago, SpaceX still hadn't landed a single rocket, NASA was busy with the Journey to Mars, Commercial Crew was years away (now launching several times per year), and the Google Lunar XPrize was still the best hope for private lunar landers (CLPS was still several years away).
We also didn't have small launchers, we were launching roughly 300 satellites per year (now we're at over 1,800), and we were still processing the consequences of finding water on the Moon a few years earlier.
Today, space companies have gone public with valuations in the billions, SpaceX rockets land so often that everyone is scrambling to copy them, and we have 11 missions planned to the Moon in 2022 alone, among a thousand other, less visible advances in the industry that make building successful space companies much easier and more likely than it was 8 years ago.
We can do a lot in 8 years. We can't possibly imagine all we can do. The past 8 years in spaceflight saw much more progress than the previous 8, 16, or 24 years combined. If we keep this pace (and it looks like we will), we can be comfortably sitting on the Moon by 2030. Our market and industry projections are likely to fall shorter than the reality of 2030.
However, there's still a logic to how the lunar industry can evolve. We can't sell lunar resources without a customer to use them, we can't mine lunar resources without lunar landers, we can't have landers without communications, and so on. This logic is reflected in our timeline (see Figure 1 above) and we'll use it in this article to see what we can expect on the Moon in 2030.
Orbital infrastructureis the first step
While landers and rovers are the very first step (one that we're seeing today already in 2022), they'll likely remain the only steps we take on the lunar surface for a while. The main reason behind that is cost: how many individual missions can NASA and the other space agencies pay for at $100M a piece?
The answer is a complex debate around NASA's and public budgeting priorities that we probably will talk in another article. However, we're going out on a limb and say that “definitely fewer than if they cost $10M instead” qualifies as an answer. There are other factors that limit our activities on the Moon, all of which we have discussed as part of our value proposition, but cost remains the largest, determining factor (you can see this as a trade-off between cost, risk, and returns. More on that another day).
The way forward is then simple: reduce costs. Hence, the focus on the Moon will shift from developing landers and rovers to developing the supporting infrastructure that makes the first 2 run faster, cheaper, smoother, and in general better. This shift is already being noticeable in the industry: we've had more lunar comms projects than lunar landers announced in the past year, and the support from agencies is changing towards infrastructure. Which infrastructure you say? Well, just the things we can do in orbit: communications, navigation, observation, and space stations.
Constellations come first
By 2030, we can expect to have at least one satellite constellation for each communications, navigation, and lunar observation. These may be combined in a single system (like comms & navigation for Harmony), or in independent systems that may or may not talk to each other. It's too early to say for sure.
Satellite constellations will be the first “truly lunar” systems that we see for a variety of reasons. First, they're the first ones to have a market, thanks to all the landers and rovers. Second, humanity as a species now has a good handling of all issues around constellations. We see them proliferate in large numbers on Earth, which means they'll be cheaper and easier to deploy on the Moon than other systems, where we don't have as much expertise.
What makes them the obvious next step though, is the environment where satellites are. We have operated satellites in space for 60 years, and space around the Moon is roughly the same as space around Earth (similar thermal and radiation conditions, just a little bit dustier from lunar regolith). Space is space, after all.
This particular aspect makes satellites a known factor, a key characteristic when it comes to exploration. There are still plenty of unknowns about lunar operations. From how regolith affects mechanisms to how well components will surface lunar night or permanently dark regions.
We could in principle deploy the same communications and navigation equipment on the surface near a target site, or deploy multiple relays on the surface to route signals from the lunar far side. This might even be cheaper and more efficient since we wouldn't need multiple satellites and operations would be simpler. However, we don't know how well our systems will fare after several months on the surface.
For landers aiming for a 14-day stay this is not a problem. For infrastructure that wants to last and serve customers for years, it can be a killing factor. In space though, we more or less know how our satellites will degrade over time. If we want to deploy sustainable infrastructure, the fewer unknowns the better.
The known aspect of space, combined with the flexibility of orbits (e.g., no need to commit to a landing site right away), makes orbital infrastructure the obvious next step.
Just for completion, our own personal bet is that we will see at least 3-4 constellations operating on the Moon by 2030. Most likely 2 related to communications and navigation, and 1-2 related to lunar observation. The market timeline tells us all: the market for communications and navigation is already here, while for lunar observation is still some years away.
Space stations will follow
You probably expected to see satellite constellations in this list (you're reading Plus Ultra Space's blog after all), but maybe space stations are a surprise.
Why would we need a space station in lunar orbit?
How does that help us get the lunar economy going?
These are common objections from the detractors of the Lunar Gateway. We could argue for a while about Gateway's design choices and how they can be improved for commercial activities (I for one would make the orbit much lower) but the idea in general is the right one: the Moon will need a way station. The reasons are again cost and known factors.
In short: lunar landers will need a place to go to in orbit.
This statement might sound weird: current lunar landers go from Earth to the lunar surface (otherwise they'd be orbiters!). However, reducing costs of lunar surface missions will eventually require reusable landers. We'll need vehicles that can do the surface trip in one go, either refueling in orbit or on the surface.
Eventually, it's likely that these vehicles just remain landed close to the one of the lunar base hubs (e.g., Artemis Base Camp) and then go to orbit to pick up any payloads that need to come down. In the meantime though, we run again on the issues on the lunar surface.
How long can a lander remain on the surface unattended and still be operational? In orbit, we have a better understand of how long the systems will live. Refueling on the surface also has its issues, namely having to get the fuel to the surface. It'll just be cheaper initially to have it in orbit.
Any lander that wants to implement reusability will start with in-orbit refueling and reusability. Unless anyone wants to clutter lunar orbit with landing stages waiting to be reused (with the additional operational complexity and cost of having to match orbit with a number of them for refueling), we'll see a way station acting as a place for fuel, landers, and cargo to meet each other. It's no surprise that one of Gateway's main roles is precisely to do that for crewed missions: get the landers, fuel, and crews together.
I personally believe that we will see at least one station beyond Gateway, serving smaller, commercial landers in a lower orbit without the restrictions imposed by Gateway's orbit and leveraging the benefits of the communications and navigation infrastructure.
How these way stations will look like is a complete other discussion. It's likely that, at least at first, these aren't much more than a fueling station (like those by Orbit Fab). We'll see complexity progressively grow, adding robotic arms to move payloads around, and potentially a crewed presence to perform maintenance on the landers.
Eventually, these way stations will serve as an interchange point between reusable vehicles coming from Earth or Earth orbit, vehicles from lunar orbit, and eventually ships going to Mars, but this will take longer than 2030.
And all of them enable surface activities
Even though the focus will be in orbit, we can't forget about the surface. After all, that's where all the good stuff is! Good resources, mostly. These surface activities will be the users and customers of the orbital infrastructure, so without them we have no lunar activity at all.
By 2030, enabled by the orbital infrastructure, surface activities will have advanced beyond the first initial landings of small rovers and landers.
We will also have almost a decade and 140+ missions of cumulative experience dealing with the lunar environment, being able to navigate better, prospect resources better, and in general operate better than today. All this combined will allow us to start the first stages of advanced surface operations on the lunar surface: resource extraction and processing, and construction.
By 2030, we'll start seeing the first water production plants and the first native buildings on the Moon. Most likely around the south pole, but also in lower latitude regions for specific purposes (e.g., the Far View telescope).
Finally, we'll also see the first steps of human presence. Artemis has a whole plan to build the Artemis Base Camp by 2030. These early missions though will likely run in parallel to the resource extraction and construction, and neither support nor depend on them. They will be scientific missions aimed at exploring the Moon and learning to live in it, with resources from Earth. Only once the other surface activities are mature enough will we see astronauts supporting construction, maintaining rovers, and utilizing the resources extracted on the Moon.
The Moon in 2030
So, how does our 2030 Moon finally look like?
We'll see orbital infrastructure, the early stages of surface operations, and some astronauts sciencing around the polar regions. At least 3-4 satellite constellations operating regularly around another celestial body (!), routine missions, early constructions…an exciting future lies ahead.
By 2030, it certainly won't be a level of activity worthy of The Expanse, but the first steps towards it,and just in 8 years!