Airbus Ventures, the investment arm of the European aerospace giant, has led a $25m funding round into quantum sensor company Q-CTRL as part of its grand vision to mine the moon.
Lewis Pinault, Airbus Ventures partner, says that moon mining was one of its core investment theses and investing in a quantum sensing startup was part of building the arsenal to do this over the coming decade.
“We’re focused on the development of lunar resources,” Pinault tells Sifted. “We are trying to find the entrepreneurs around the world who are able to build the ready transport systems, the robotics, the rovers, to do mineral assay work, to be able to identify what we would call rare earth elements and precious metals, platinum group metals, cobalt [on the moon].”
In October Airbus and Air Liquide announced the creation of a non-profit platform, EURO2MOON, to explore and develop lunar resources, and Airbus Ventures also recently invested in ispace, a Tokyo-based company that is planning to send a lander to the moon next year.
Ever since water ice was discovered on the moon in 1994 there has been growing interest in harnessing the moon’s resources. One of the missing pieces of the puzzle, however, is being able to map exactly where they are. It currently needs a cumbersome collection of “robots, rovers and orbital capabilities” to do this, says Pinault. But quantum sensing equipment developed by Q-CTRL, an Australian startup with offices in Germany, potentially offers a neat solution.
We can measure underground water levels, we can measure ocean currents. It's done directly from space
The hypersensitive quantum sensors developed by Q-CTRL can be used to do things like measure the Earth's gravitational fields from space.
“We can measure underground water levels, we can measure ocean currents. It's done directly from space,” says Michael Biercuk, founder and CEO of Q-CTRL.
Q-CTRL’s customers include Advanced Navigation and the Australian Department of Defence, who are using the technology for navigation and observation on Earth.
But what can be applied to the Earth can work for the moon as well, which is what led to Airbus Ventures backing the company.
Airbus Ventures invests independently of the parent company and there are no guarantees that the startups the venture arm invests in will ever work with the main business. However, space technology has been a big focus for Airbus Ventures, including investments in novel rocket launch startups like Astra Space and SpinLaunch, as well as in autonomous vehicle startups like Telexistence and Cognata. Knitted together, these could one day become the building blocks of a moon mining operation.
In addition to quantum sensing, Q-CTRL is developing control systems for quantum computers, recently showing it could improve the performance of quantum algorithms executed on real quantum computers by more than 2500%.
However, the quantum computing industry is still several years away from machines that will be useful, while the use cases for quantum sensing are much clearer and easier to monetise in the short term, Biercuk says.