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Moon vs. Asteroids/NEOs Near Earth vs. Mars : Lunar Polar is Best

For human settlement as well as potential financial profitability, sustainability, and growth, this page compares Earth's Moon vs. Near Earth Asteroids/Objects (NEA/NEO) vs. Mars for their relative merits across important factors. The lunar poles are assumed the location of choice on the Moon, nowhere else being considered on the Moon.

This is about finding the best location for the most economical, quickest payback, lowest risk, sustainable, most profitable, and potentially highest growth location, for investors with a sense of urgency.

This does NOT consider government funding. This comparison is not made for people who intend to rely on government funding for their space projects and who would otherwise not do anything without government funding. This comparison is made for purely private sector ventures. This is also not about "manifest destiny" in the far future. It focuses on the practical, now, over the theoretical.

Likewise, this does NOT consider scientific interests like telescopes, the search for primitive life, understanding the evolution of the solar system, etc. It also doesn't value just exploring new and different places for something new and different. In fact, it values the opposite, in that old and better known places are safer bets. Nor does it address the faithful's emotional desires to go stand or explore in some particular place for the human experience. All these things will benefit from the success of a purely private sector venture, and a private entity could sell telescopes, tours, etc., but it's not the main basis of an initial private sector venture.

Based on the above, the following is a systematic comparison. Just to make clear, I did not start with any bias based on emotion or self-interest or some sort of vision to promote, this is simply looking for what is most likely to succeed. I have read many advocates promoting their preference like somebody selling a business product, by emphasizing the benefits of their destination and the disadvantages of alternatives, without pointing out contrary points or giving a balanced comparison. You are welcome to send comments to me for consideration.

This will start with a chart summarizing my analysis, and after the chart each row will be discussed.

Moon (lunar polar) vs. asteroids (NEOs) vs. Mars
color coding:
best
middling
disadvantageous

Lunar polar NEOs (the selected best) Mars
Familiarity with resources:


Sampling and probes Apollo samples returned, many probes Probes of different objects Probes

Familiarity with resources:

To "live off the land" we need to send equipment to extract and process the local materials, and that equipment had better work well on the local materials if we expect people to survive there for long. We must have a plan for development based on what's available.

For the Moon, we have lots of Apollo samples from different locations which were brought back to Earth for detailed analysis. We don't have this for asteroids or Mars, though we do have meteorites from asteroids and from Mars. There can be expected to be some differences between what will survive as a meteorite and be identified as one, versus the ordinary surface, this still gives us a fairly good understanding, combined with probes to all 3 locations and scientific understanding of astrogeology.

A problem with asteroids / Near Earth Objects is that they can vary greatly between bodies, far more than between different areas on the surface of the Moon or Mars. We have not yet sent a probe to any economically attractive asteroid, only to uneconomical ones. It would be far more risky to send material processing equipment to an unprobed object, just based on its lower cost to go there and back, and telescopic spectroscopy.

The Moon is the best characterized, but just because it's green in the chart, that is just a relative ranking. While we could send some general equipment to a lunar pole and it might work well, there would still be benefits to sending more probes to get a more detailed understanding of a particular site. However, we may not be able to afford to take too long, fall for prospective contractors who push for too much detail thereby needing excessive services, or get too conservative and risk averse ourselves, as those can lead to getting bogged down and financial failure.

Mission deployment costs:


Research and development returned samples to work with zero G mining, variety of NEOs reasonable simulants
Deployment fuel Interorbital (IO) + landing Interorbital (IO) interorbital (IO) + landing
Deployment time days to weeks weeks to months months to years

Mission deployment costs

Research and development

How much time and money is needed for each scenario, relatively speaking? All scenarios require a lot, so these are just relative rankings, e.g., a green rank does not mean cheap. However, research and development is facilitated by the existence of samples returned by Apollo which favors the Moon, knowledge from probes which favor the Moon and Mars, relative consistency between objects which disfavors asteroids / NEOs, lack of experience in mining in nearly zero-g which disfavors asteroids, and experience with landers which favors the Moon and Mars. It's assumed that no Mars launch rocket needs to be developed, and all astronauts going to Mars accept a one-way ticket.

Deployment fuel

Some asteroids near Earth have a very low outbound "delta-v" which offers minimal fuel to reach it and rendezvous and land upon it. The Moon is obviously a much lower delta-v object to reach than Mars, for the interorbital journey. For the final step, landing, the Moon is also much smaller so that less fuel is needed for a fueled landing but Mars has a thin atmosphere which can provide a lot of braking, so we could call them fairly even, though some could argue that a totally fuel-less landing may be reasonable on Mars. Mars' atmosphere is only about 1% of Earth's so it may be a very rough landing, and a heavy parachute which must be accounted for.

Deployment time

Time is money, especially given overhead (staff, facilities, etc.), and if you've got competitors then it's advantageous to get your product to market more quickly. The Moon is just days to weeks away all the time, other "near Earth" objects much further and with accessibility varying a lot.

Financial return, sustainability:


Product return time days to weeks Weeks / months / years not economical, full stop
Product return cost Launch from moon + IO IO only but quite variable not economical, full stop

Financial return, sustainability

Mars is out of the question here, as it's simply not a location to export goods and services (except maybe a reality TV program, but that can also be exported from the Moon and asteroids). Here, we are looking at exporting goods and services, such as fuels and building materials for near Earth large scale space structures, industry, and colonization.

Product return time

We can launch stuff off the Moon and have it in a suitable high Earth orbit within days to weeks, all the time. Returning things from asteroids / near Earth objects would take months, and the return time is inconsistent due to the varying relative orbits, since the Moon goes around the Earth but asteroids/NEOs go around the Sun.

Product return cost

Products must be launched off the Moon, which requires propellant, at least until an electromagnetic launcher is developed and deployed (which is possible since the Moon has no atmosphere and a low launch velocity). For this analysis, I assumed no electromagnetic launcher.

While theoretically it may require less fuel to return material from an asteroid near Earth, it's important to keep in mind that the return delta-V and time of transit from near Earth asteroids varies greatly over time due to its orbit around the Sun. It would need to be a very special NEO to compete with the Moon, all considered.

Resources:


Volatiles High certainty already Unsure if unprobed High certainty already
Metals Free metal granules Granules and/or chunks Free unlikely, can manufacture
Glasses & ceramics High certainty already High certainty already High certainty already

Resources

Volatiles

Water, carbon, and nitrogen are vital for supporting life. Mars has these in great abundance, as do parts of the lunar poles.

Probes have indicated that Near Earth objects might typically be a lot drier than hoped a while back. Some are extinct comets, but there is a lot of debate about the potential density of volatiles remaining in NEOs, and we don't have evidence of the abundance of volatiles in NEOs like we do for Mars and the lunar poles. It would be risky to go to a NEO assuming it has lots of volatiles.

Metals

Metals can be extracted from selected minerals on all bodies. However, free nickel-iron metal granules and chunks exist and are most abundant in asteroids, and highly abundant in lunar regolith, but not on Mars due to oxidation.

Glasses and ceramics

Similar to how concrete is used on Earth, many structures can be built from the abundance of materials on the Moon and Mars which can be made from minimally processed regolith and rocks.

Potential exports:


Volatiles Known from orbital probes Unsure if unprobed not economical, full stop
Metals Free granules or manufactured Free granules or manufactured not economical, full stop
Glasses & ceramics Abundant and easy Abundant and easy not economical, full stop

Potential exports

Exports are for selling to make money and make the business sustainable and grow.

Exports could be either finished products or feedstocks, and it may be assumed that they are to be delivered to high Earth orbit (whereby they could be distributed to low Earth orbit or anywhere). This gets a little bit complex. Orbital space offers 24 hour solar power and perhaps more flexibility in manufacturing. The Moon has long nights, and launching many finished products is more complicated than launching standard billets or containers of uniform feedstocks, but pre-processing must be done to launch valuable materials. For asteroids, there's a cost for sending more manufacturing equipment to the asteroid, so any analysis is sensitive to delta-v for the particular object.

Volatiles

These can be primarily fuel propellants, life support elements, and industrial processing chemicals.

Water, liquid oxygen, liquid nitrogen, carbon, and various other chemicals are reasonably abundant in the lunar poles, but how abundant they are on a near Earth object such as a dormant comet is questionable.

Metals

These are nickel-iron granules which also contain significant amounts of cobalt, platinum group metals, and other elements. These are fairly abundant on the lunar surface, and very abundant in many near Earth objects.

In addition, it's possible to export additional metals such as calcium, magnesium, aluminum (on the Moon especially), titanium, and others.

Glasses and ceramics

Regolith can be processed and used as bulk materials for various things ...

Power supply:


Solar power 2 weeks/night, maybe polar points Continuous Further from Sun, 12 hour batteries
Nuclear May be recommended Not needed, small backup May be recommended

Power supply

In orbital space, we have 24 hour solar power in abundance, for both electricity and heat. Asteroids and industry in high Earth orbit can benefit from this.

The lunar surface has 2 week nights. There are some locations on peaks within the lunar polar region which are continuously lit, and electric power could be beamed to places at night, though this all starts to get a bit complicated.

Otherwise, nuclear power sources can be used for electricity and heat, but again, this starts to get more complicated, especially for large scale industry during the nights.

Human and robotic missions:


Robot comm. round trip ~2.5 seconds Minutes, variable ~6 minutes to ~44 minutes
Radiation risk (flares, cosmic) Shortest trip, polar craters, tunnel in Long trip, tunnel in, go behind Long trip, tunnel in
Human deployment days to weeks Weeks / months / years long trip plus risky landing
Human emergencies days to weeks Weeks / months / years months at best, bigger rocket

Human and robotic missions

Humans are very expensive to send into space and maintain, so a high reliance of teleoperation and autonomous robots is preferred, especially in the early phase. Nonetheless, having versatile humans on-site can greatly help productivity and fix unforseen problems.

Eventually, we want human bases with high enough populations and advanced capabilities to become autonomous and give our species survival. However, we won't get to that point of take-off if our initial costs are too high and the project fails financially early on.

Robot communications round trip

A lot of work will require teleoperation of robots. While theoretically, many things should be able to be done with autonomous robots, realistically we will do a lot of teleoperation, and for the sake of decent productivity and much quicker results, there is a great benefit to short round trip communications times.

Radiation risk (flares, cosmic)

Humans in the space station in low Earth orbit are largely protected by the Earth's magnetic field, but at all of the considered destinations, the radiation is considerably higher. It is assumed that once they reach their destination, they will use local materials to create radiation shielding, so the 3 locations are considered equivalent.

Different kinds of radiation are attenuated by different kinds of barriers -- such as bulk dirt vs. water ice. Therefore, there is some benefit to having an abundance of water onsite. However, for these cases, I've considered them fairly equivalent, except during transit, the next item.

Human deployment

To send humans to any of the locations, we must consider the safety of the travel time, due to the radiation in space and potential solar flares. For a longer voyage, we may need more radiation shielding which would thus increase the cost of mass transportation, or else the astronauts accept risks.

Human emergencies

If there is an emergency which requires a human to return to Earth quickly, such as an illness or injury, or if there's a base disaster, then obviously the closer the better. Of course, this could be relieved if astronauts volunteering for these missions just accept that they aren't going to be sent back and they're going at their own risk, as many people have discussed, and that's fair enough. You may put as little or as much weight on this factor as you prefer.



Copyright 2019 by Mark Evan Prado, but you may use this chart in presentations as long as you keep the PERMANENT logo on the bottom. You may also request a .jpg version of the table, or a PDF version of this page.


Same table as above, but shorter without discussion:
Moon (lunar polar) vs. asteroids (NEOs) vs. Mars
color coding:
best
middling
disadvantageous

Lunar polar NEOs (the selected best) Mars
Familiarity with resources:


Sampling and probes Apollo samples returned, many probes Probes of different objects Probes
Mission deployment costs:


Research and development returned samples to work with zero G mining, variety of NEOs reasonable simulants
Deployment fuel Interorbital (IO) + landing Interorbital (IO) interorbital (IO) + landing
Deployment time days to weeks weeks to months months to years
Financial return, sustainability:


Product return time days to weeks Weeks / months / years not economical, full stop
Product return cost Launch from moon + IO IO only but quite variable not economical, full stop
Resources:


Volatiles High certainty already Unsure if unprobed High certainty already
Metals Free metal granules Granules and/or chunks Free unlikely, can manufacture
Glasses & ceramics High certainty already High certainty already High certainty already
Potential exports:


Volatiles Known from orbital probes Unsure if unprobed not economical, full stop
Metals Free granules or manufactured Free granules or manufactured not economical, full stop
Glasses & ceramics Abundant and easy Abundant and easy not economical, full stop
Power supply:


Solar power 2 weeks/night, maybe polar points Continuous Further from Sun, 12 hour batteries
Nuclear May be recommended Not needed, small backup May be recommended
Human and robotic missions:


Robot comm. round trip ~2.5 seconds Minutes, variable ~6 minutes to ~44 minutes
Radiation risk (flares, cosmic) Shortest trip, polar craters, tunnel in Long trip, tunnel in, go behind Long trip, tunnel in
Human deployment days to weeks Weeks / months / years long trip plus risky landing
Human emergencies days to weeks Weeks / months / years months at best, bigger rocket


Copyright 2019 by Mark Evan Prado, but you may use this chart in presentations as long as you keep the PERMANENT logo on the bottom. You may also request a .jpg version of the table, or a PDF version of this page.

Details on topics above are of course discussed elsewhere on this website.




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