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Private company gets government approval to fly to the moon

An artistic rendering of the MX-1 lander on the surface of the Moon. (Moon Express)
An artistic rendering of the MX-1 lander on the surface of the Moon. (Moon Express)

A Cape Canaveral, Florida-based company has won U.S. government approval to send a robotic lander to the moon on a two-week mission in 2017, company representatives announced on Wednesday.

It’s time to meet the new boys on the block, an up-and-coming private company called Moon Express (MoonEx). Formed in 2010 by a group of Silicon Valley and space entrepreneurs, the company’s goal is to eventually mine the moon for natural resources of economic value.

Gaining approval from the U.S. government was an interesting hurdle to overcome because there is no framework for commercial space missions to another world. Lawmakers are working on some sort of regulatory framework, but it won’t be ready in time for MoonEx’s launch in 2017, according to the Verge.

MoonEx had to come up with a “regulatory patch” that allowed the government to oversee the mission. It also took meetings with the Federal Aviation Administration, the White House and the State Department, but MoonEx received its approval. This is the first time the federal government has granted approval for a space mission beyond Earth orbit.

Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards told Space.com. that the reason the approval process took so long was not because anyone was against the mission, but, he said, “It’s just that we asked questions that had never been asked before, and that had to be addressed and worked out.”

The company’s robotic machines, about the size of a suitcase, are designed to look for materials that are scarce on Earth, but can be found in everything from technologically advanced vehicle batteries to guidance systems on cruise missiles. Naveen Jain, chairman and company co-founder, said, “We think it (the moon) could hold resources that benefit Earth and all humanity.”

Now that MoonEx has received clearance to travel to the moon, they can focus on the financial and technical challenges of the 2017 launch. Moon Express signed a multi-launch deal with Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based company last year. MoonEx will launch their MX-1 lander atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster.

Rocket Lab’s flagship engine, the 4,900lbf Rutherford, is a turbo-pumped LOX/RP-1 engine specifically designed for the Electron Launch Vehicle, according to the company. The engine has an entirely new propulsion cycle and uses electric motors to drive its turbopumps.

The main goal of this first launch is to test the MX-1’s capabilities and performance on the moon’s surface. They also hope to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, a $30 million purse that goes to the first group to land a privately funded rover on the moon by the end of 2017.

The rover will need to travel at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) on the lunar surface, and beam high-definition video and photos back to Earth to claim the prize. Believe it or not, but 16 teams are in the running for the prize.

Jain said in a statement today. “In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth. In 15 years, the moon will be an important part of Earth’s economy, and potentially our second home.”

 

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