University of Texas students' idea: Carving images on the moon

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AUSTIN, Texas — Want to leave a message on the moon’s surface?

A group of University of Texas students have a vision that could — at least in theory — make that a possibility someday.

The 10 UT engineering students devised a business plan to turn the idea into a moneymaker — and won awards for it at a NASA competition.

They pitched and provided the plan for building a rover that would carve messages or images onto the moon and capture pictures of those etchings, which in turn could be used for merchandising. While not visible from Earth, the etchings are intended to be permanent, the students said.

The idea for the project came when Brianna Caughron, the student team leader, was walking back to her apartment from class and noticed carvings on a sidewalk, she said.

“I was like, oh my gosh, that could easily be done on the lunar surface. There’s the famous Apollo footprint from the Apollo 11 mission,” she said. “People would want to have a unique mark on the moon they can say, ‘Oh I put it up there like that. There’s something that’s mine that’s on the moon.’”

The business would charge about $10 per second for the time spent carving each image, an amount they settled on after polling other students informally and to make up for the upfront cost of launching the rover into space.

Overall, the entire process, including development of the rover, would cost $275 million to $300 million, according to Ali Babool, who was on the business and analytics side of the team.

The students expect to make up those costs and turn a profit by the end of the first year of lunar operations, said Caughron said.

If development started next year, the team has forecast that it could bring in about $610 million in annual revenue by 2026, with $450 million in profit. It used the tattoo market here on Earth as a model to come up with the financial projection.

The group’s business plan — called Project LEGACI, short for Lunar Engraver with Geologic Autonomous Carving Instrument — was a product of six to seven months of work for the university’s Space Systems Design classes, Babool said.

This wasn’t a simple PowerPoint presentation. It required delving into the nitty-gritty of a theoretical business, from a rigorous fiscal analysis to a thorough breakdown of the engineering and physics of the project to an assessment of regulations from space law that would affect it.

Project LEGACI won in its category of commercial space development at NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage design competition, and it also received the Excellence in Commercial Innovation award.

They were one of only 15 teams to have the opportunity to compete, selected from an undisclosed number of entries, said a spokesperson for the competition.

Ultimately, however, all this is merely theoretical. Will it become reality?

“I didn’t think it was ever something that … someone could invest in. But I mean, over the course of doing the project, figuring out everything and seeing how it could be viable, it’s made me kind of wonder, ‘Yeah, what could happen?’ “ Caughron said.

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