Meet the Japanese company that intends to mine the moon
We don’t know where the future of mining will take us, but for many it certainly involves outer space.
Takeshi Hakamada is one of them. Inspired by the successes of a nascent commercial space industry, the Star Wars nut turned aerospace engineer founded and now leads ispace lunar – a company with its sights firmly fixed on Earth’s closest astronomical neighbour.
We spoke to Mr Hakamada about the company’s lofty plans to extract resources from the moon.
Tell us a little more about ispace.
ispace was incorporated in Japan in 2010. Since the company’s inception, we have grown steadily, starting from a small office space to a two-floor office space with 16 employees. In 2015, Team HAKUTO, a Google Luna XPRIZE (GLXP) team managed by ispace and with over 60 pro-bono members, won the GLXP Milestone Prize.
ispace specializes in developing micro-robotics that will be used to locate, characterize, extract, produce and deliver resources from the lunar surface to customers on the Moon and in cislunar space.
What is your ultimate vision?
Expand our planet, Expand our Future. Our vision is to create a sustainable ecosystem in outer space and extend the human presence throughout the solar system. The first step is to develop space resources and establish an economy in space.
ispace aims to be the world's leading lunar exploration company. In the near term, ispace will use its micro robotic systems to locate and characterize resources on the lunar surface. In the long term, ispace aims to process and store the ice it finds as liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen which can be used and delivered as a fuel for rockets and satellites.
ispace sees the Moon as a prominent destination in any plans for space resource utilization beyond geostationary orbit because of three principle attributes: it is near to the Earth, it has millions of metric tons of water ice and other valuable resources, and scientifically it is extremely important.
In the near future, numerous space agencies and commercial companies intend to pursue exploration on the lunar surface. ispace will not only serve these international players, but also work alongside them to begin a third industrial revolution.
How could this eventually impact Earth-bound mining industries?
Any space resource development activities would have to apply terrestrial mining technologies. The space resource development could then further improve these existing technologies by playing within the harsh restriction of an outer space environment. Terrestrial mining companies could potentially benefit from technologies used for space resource development, as they must be efficient and operate with minimum human intervention.
ispace plans to develop lunar exploration and utilization technology that will span the entire mining ecosystem from scouting potential targets, to prospecting in selected areas of interest, all the way to extraction, refining, storage and delivery.
The robotic technology that ispace is developing for outer space will have many useful applications here on Earth. ispace is currently exploring opportunities to utilize its robotic technology in extreme environments such as around volcanoes, in deep mine shafts, as well as in disaster areas. The rovers may also find use in facility maintenance, construction support, security, and inspection in dangers and hazards areas.
How exactly are you going to do this?
Our initial scouting and prospecting missions will support economic, engineering, and mining models to determine the financial viability of extracting, processing, and eventually delivering lunar resources to customers on the Moon and in cislunar space.
Our upcoming mission with Team HAKUTO will be conducted through a teleoperation from the ground. However, the future prospecting missions must become autonomous as we plan to adopt a swarm exploration using a group of micro-rovers. We may possibly collaborate with astronauts on the ISS to control rovers on the Moon.
What initially turned you onto prospecting the moon?
There is scientific evidence about the abundance of water ice on the Moon.
It is estimated that six billion tons of water is available on the Moon, mostly at the lunar poles. Data analysis of lunar water suggests that the ice is relatively pure, and that it’s accessible - 22% of the Shackleton crater, a crater in the south pole, is covered by water ice.
Who are you working with to drive your ambitions forward?
Google Lunar XPRIZE: The GLXP is the largest prize competition of all time with a reward of $30 million. The GLXP aims to incentivize entrepreneurs to create a new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond, while inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers. ispace is managing Team Hakuto, the only GLXP team from Japan. Team Hakuto won the $500,000 Milestone Prize in 2015, ranking it amongst the top five of 16 teams.
Space Robotics Laboratory at Tohoku University: ispace is partnered with the Space Robotics Laboratory (SRL) at Tohoku University in Japan. This research laboratory, headed by our director and CTO Professor Kazuya Yoshida, has been active for nearly 20 years, producing technology for real space missions. It is a leader in collaborative development in remote sensing satellite missions and developed robotics and micro-rover technology for JAXA’s Hayabusa I and II sample-return missions. It is also a leader in planetary rovers and on-orbit robotics. SRL has developed several generations of prototype planetary rovers. SRL is also a leader in field robotics. Its notable achievements are collaborative R&D of the first Japanese robot operating in the Fukushima nuclear plant after the disaster and volcano exploration and observation robotic systems combining both ground vehicles and drones. The ispace rovers are the end result of over 10 years of rover development. At SRL, up to twenty students and researchers are actively performing research for ispace’s Hakuto project.
Funase Lab, University of Tokyo: Dr. Funase is an associate Professor at University of Tokyo. He led the first small satellite deep space exploration mission (PROCYON) successfully, and his lab has been the leading lab in the field of cubesat and microsat in the world.
He is advising ispace for the development of deep space spacecraft for future mining missions. ispace and Funase-lab agreed a joint research contract for spacecraft design, and the lab assigned two top level graduate students for this joint research.
Dr. Funase’s interest is a flexible transportation system from LEO/GTO to deep space.
Talk us through the three phases of your mission.
The three key steps of any space resource development activities are:
1) Transportation to the Moon or asteroids
By minimizing and miniaturizing components, ispace is able to accelerate the R&D process and offer a frequent and low cost transportation service to the Moon.
2) Onsite prospecting of resources
ispace’s current technology focuses on our innovative and light weight micro-rovers. The four-wheeled rover will be used in the Google Lunar XPRIZE and will be the key vehicle for conducting preliminary scouting missions. Our rovers will be used for the future swarm prospecting on the Moon.
The micro-rovers will have the ability to host a number of scientific instruments to gather various types of data from the lunar surface. Big data analytics throughout exploration and prospecting missions will allow high fidelity mapping of the Moon at several locations to identify lunar hazards, precious volatiles, valuable minerals and suitable shelters.
3) Onsite resource extraction and processing
From around 2024, ispace will set up an ISRU facility and begin testing lunar ice mining procedures at a small scale that can eventually be sold to customers on the Moon.
The long-term objective is to sell water extracted from the lunar surface as a fuel to customers in cislunar space and on the lunar surface.
It’s an ambitious timeline - how is everything proceeding thus far?
We have begun our spacecraft/lander development, which is set for operation from 2020. After 2021, we plan to land on the Moon on a monthly basis.
Where do you want to see ispace and space mining in the next 10-15 years?
In 15 years, I would want to see a world where companies, organizations and agencies are buying and selling space resources. This might sound very optimistic, but I believe that startups like ispace can significantly shorten the timeline and realize this vision.