Where should Earth look next for natural resources? Billionaire Naveen Jain, who made his fortune at Microsoft and in subsequent technology startups, suggests looking skyward — at the moon. Jain's company, Moon Express, Inc., has already been awarded $10 million by NASA, and plans to establish a mining operation on the moon's surface within a couple of years. Really? Here, a guide to this otherworldly idea:
What makes the moon worth mining?
It's loaded with valuable metals and potential energy sources. The moon is estimated to contain "20 times more titanium and platinum than anywhere on Earth," says Tibi Pulu of ZME Science. Plus, it has something Earth doesn't: helium 3, a rare isotope that's "nonexistent on our planet, that many feel could be the future of energy on Earth and in space." "The moon has never been explored from an entrepreneurial perspective," says Jain.
How do you build mines on the moon?
Getting to the moon would be the hardest part. After that, it would be easy to get mined materials back to Earth using a mirror-like "solar sail," which would be pushed through space by the energy in sunlight bouncing off of it. It's so feasible that Jain believes Moon Express could start mining operations as soon as 2013. "It's rocket science," he says, "but it's well understood rocket science."
And this is economically viable?
Yes, says Jain. The most expensive part — reaching the moon — can be done for under a hundred million dollars — "a pittance," he says. "There's a tremendous amount of waste in the government," explains Jain. With NASA's space shuttle program shuttered, Jain sees an opportunity. "Private companies can do things better."