Capitalism Spreads to Moon As Companies Ponder Ways to Plow Up Natural Lunar Resources

If commercial space companies have their way, the next few years will be full of new attempts to make money off visiting the moon, according to Space.com coverage of a panel at last week's Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop.

The panel included updates from four different companies on their mission goals and progress. There are a handful of agendas represented: Some contenders want to focus on carrying cargo, others want to focus on actually taking resources from the moon.

"Our vision is really to expand Earth's economic and social sphere to include the moon," Alain Berinstain, vice president of global development at Moon Express, a company that has laid out a three-trip schedule to exploit the moon, said at the session. "We see the moon as the Earth's eighth continent to explore and to also mine for resources, like we have with every other continent on Earth."

01_18_moon_commercial The Moon isn't made of cheese, but it may still be a valuable commercial enterprise. NASA

Their key target isn't cheese, of course—it's actually water. Not only could water quench the thirst of future lunar explorers, it could also be turned into rocket fuel, making it easier to explore destinations beyond the moon.

The details of how that would work are still hazy. "We know that there's water on the moon, 100 percent sure," planetary scientist Pascal Lee at NASA told Newsweek. He's been researching a potential way to access that water, through the collapsed ceilings of underground caves. But just because water is there doesn't mean it will be worth reaching.

"It's only a resource if the cost of extracting it is less than the cost of bringing it in from the Earth," he said, citing the miniscule amount of gold in house paint as a comparison. "You're talking bulldozing, you're talking a lot of construction work to expose water and once it's exposed you have to be careful it doesn't just vaporize."

Read more: NASA Finds Lava Tubes Near Moon's North Pole That May be Passageways to Hidden Water

But mining the moon isn't the only way to turn a profit at our rocky companion. Other companies are focusing on carrying cargo to and from the moon in something like a space truck. The company Astrobotic is already looking to fill its first shipment, charging about $545,000 per pound.

The pressure to reach the moon is particularly strong for the five companies participating in Google's Lunar X Prize, which offers millions of dollars if someone can successfully land on the moon, drive 1600 feet and send a postcard back to Earth. But the deadline for cashing in is March 31. If the contenders can't succeed quickly enough, they have to hope they can make it pay off on their own.