Imagine a private spacecraft launched from near the equator. It’s mission? To visit the moon, land on it, gather a kilogram of moon rocks and dust, then send that payload back to earth where it eventually reenters the atmosphere and is captured. Why do it? Why does anyone do anything these days: to make money. In 2003 NASA estimated 285 grams of moon rocks as being worth $1 million. That’s roughly $3,500 a gram. Would it be possible to make it to the moon and back with a kilo of the stuff for less than it’s value of $3.5 million? If not, how much of the lunar soil would make it worthwhile? Who knows, after the success of Discovery Channel shows like Gold Rush maybe they’d make a show out of it.
The mission could be broken down into the following stages: launch, travel to the moon, orbiting the moon, descent to the moon, landing on the moon, soil acquisition and storage, lift-off from the moon, return journey to Earth, atmospheric reentry, final collection. 10 stages – a nice round number.
1. Launch – Piggy back on an existing launch of a larger satellite, assuming that the entire vehicle could ride as a microsatellite weighing less than 100 kg. I assume this would be the bulk of the investment outlay.
2. Travel to moon – Disposable stage to send payload on its way to moon. Propellent could be conserved to lower launch weight in exchange for lengthening the mission. Six months there/six months return seems reasonable. But how to track the rocket both to and from the moon without a world-wide network of receivers?
3. Lunar orbit – It would be nice to skip this stage completely.
4. Descent – Since the moon has little atmosphere to speak of, parachutes could not be deployed. Therefore it seems the mission would have to rely upon rockets at some point to slow descent. That adds weight to the launch.
5. Lunar landing – Since humans aren’t on board a feather-like landing isn’t necessary. A controlled crash landing at some survivable speed would be preferred.
6. Soil acquisition and storage – It would be nice to combine soil acquisition somehow with the landing – say by having the craft land on an open ice cream scoop with a door that snaps shut once the craft has embedded in the soil. Alsoa sensor that confirms the payload isn’t empty would be critical. The last thing we would want to do is send back an empty craft.
7. Lunar ascent – Escape velocity of the moon is 2,400m/s. It’s significantly less than the earth’s of 11,200m/s but even that speed would be a challenge. Since my physics skills are laughable I can’t calculate what it would take to lift a 100kg craft off the the moon’s surface. I expect it’s more than I think.
8. Return to Earth – Anything that made it this far would probably generate world-wide headlines.
9. Atmospheric reentry – The heat shield would most likely have to survive the crash-landing on the moon. If the heat shield was opposite the soil collector (e.g. on “top” of the craft) the craft would have to orient itself to the proper trajectory to avoid becoming an expensive flaming shooting star across the sky.
10. Cargo collection – Would there be enough precision to insure the payload is returned to earth where it can be easily retrieved – such as the American desert southwest?
Which if any of these stages could be combined? For example, would the ship have to go into orbit around the moon before it dropped down to the surface or could we plot a course that would essentially crash it onto the moon’s surface? The Apollo mission relied upon two docking maneuvers. Would it be possible to simplify the mission to avoid these complex actions? That would entail sending the heat shield used for reentry into earth’s atmosphere on the last leg of the journey to the moon’s surface and back.
So you launch your spacecraft to the moon and a year or so later you pick up a parachute package containing 2.2 lbs of moon rocks and dust outside of Albuquerque. The next thing would be to parcel the dust into 100mg vials and sell them on eBay for $600 a pop. Larger specimens would go for less, of course. How soon would it take for the feds to arrive at your door arresting you for violating some international space treaty or federal law that wasn’t written with this mission in mind but that some governmental bureaucrat wants to throw at you? So on top of eBay and Paypal fees, be sure to add high power federal attorneys. Oh, and those profits? Rest assured that Obama and crew demonize you as being part of the 1% with enough balls to do something that no one has ever thought of.