The Moon will be open for business soon. Moon Express has won U.S. government permission to land on Moon. Moon Express has become the first private company approved to send a spacecraft beyond Earth orbit to the surface of the Moon.
After several years of secrecy, a company called Moon Express revealed the scope of its ambitions on Wednesday. And they are considerable. The privately held company released plans for a single, modular spacecraft that can be combined to form successfully larger and more capable vehicles. Ultimately the company plans to establish a lunar outpost in 2020 and set up commercial operations on the Moon.
Moon Express chairman says his team is “ready to go for the end of this year”
Perhaps most intriguingly, Moon Express says it is self-funded to begin bringing kilograms of lunar rocks back to Earth within about three years. “We absolutely intend to make these samples available globally for scientific research, and make them available to collectors as well,” said Bob Richards, one of the company’s founders, in an interview with Ars.
Moon Express was founded in 2010 to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which offered $20 million to the first privately funded team that lands a vehicle on the Moon, has it travel at least 500 meters, and transmits back high-definition images and video. The deadline for that prize is the end of 2017. While Moon Express says it has an outside chance to still claim the prize, its commercial ambitions now far exceed a simple, one-off lander.
At the center of the company’s architecture is the the single stage MX-1 spacecraft that can deliver up to 30kg to the lunar surface. This vehicle is similar in size and shape to the R2-D2 droid from Star Wars, but a little bigger, Richards said. Launched inside a conventional rocket payload fairing, the MX-1 is powered by a single PECO rocket engine.
This 3D-printed, regeneratively cooled engine operates on highly refined kerosene (RP-1) and hydrogen peroxide. Richards said two of these engines have already been manufactured, and the company will conduct flight qualifying tests at its Cape Canaveral-based range this year. The PECO engine will serve as the common core for all of its MX vehicles.
Other configurations will combine two, five, and nine MX-1 spacecraft to perform increasingly capable missions to the Moon, and possibly deeper into the Solar System, such as the moons of Mars. The MX-9 spacecraft would be able to deliver up to 500kg to the lunar surface, including an ascent vehicle that could return to Earth.
The proposed hardware opens up a suite of missions on the lunar surface, three of which Moon Express said it has funding to support. The company’s initial mission is “Lunar Scout,” which seeks to become the first commercial voyage to the Moon. This will carry several payloads, including the International Lunar Observatory, “MoonLight” by the INFN National Laboratories of Frascati and the University of Maryland, and a Celestis memorial flight. This mission will also attempt to win the lunar XPRIZE.
The company’s second proposed flight, the “Lunar Outpost” expedition, will seek to establish a lunar research outpost at the South Pole of the Moon. NASA and others are highly interested in the potential to turn water ice in shadowed lunar craters into rocket propellant. This lander will prospect for water and useful minerals