Moon Express lays road map for lunar, deep-space missions

Cape Canaveral company among finalists for $20M Google Lunar XPrize

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Florida startup Moon Express revealed its ambitious plans Wednesday to establish a permanent Moon base where robotic explorers will deliver science payloads and return samples.

CEO and founder Robert Richards said the company plans to open “lunar exploration for everyone,” starting with its first mission by the end of the year.

Moon Express is the only U.S. company competing for the Google Lunar XPrize. As part of the competition, the first privately funded team to land a robotic mission on the moon by the end of 2017, travel at least 500 meters and transmit video and images back to Earth from the lunar surface will be awarded $20 million. Second-and third-place winners would receive $5 million each.

Companies from Israel, India and Japan are also among the five finalists.

Beyond the Google Lunar XPrize, the company plans to make three robotic missions to the moon by 2020, according to the plans released Wednesday.

The first mission would deliver the MX-1 Scout class explorer, hailed as the “lowest-cost planetary spacecraft ever,” according to the Moon Express website.

MX-1, a cylindered shaped robot with legs, is capable of delivering up to approximately 66 pounds of cargo to the moon. The first scouting mission will carry payloads from the International Lunar Observatory, the INFN National Laboratories and the University of Maryland.

That first mission will seal the deal on the $20 million if Moon Express beats its international competitors. Only one other company has a launch contract. SpaceIL, of Israel, has contracted SpaceX to launch its dishwasher-sized spacecraft in 2017 on a Falcon 9.

The second mission would use the company’s larger spacecraft, MX-1E, which will land on the moon’s south pole. The moon’s poles have water and other organic compounds that may be valuable resources.

Richards tweeted a photo of the R2-D2-shaped space robot Wednesday.

An artistic rendering of the Moon Express MX-9 and MX-1 robots on the lunar south pole.

“The primary goals of this mission are to set up the first lunar research outpost, prospect for water and useful minerals and accommodate a variety of research instruments for our expedition partners,” according to the news release.

As the final part of the 3-part lunar mission, the company plans to return samples from the south pole in 2020. A video of the MX-9 lunar surface lander shows its robot arms sucking up regolith from the moon’s surface and place it into a pod in the center of the vehicle for storage.

All three missions will be managed from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complexes 17 and 18, currently leased by Moon Express.

Last July, the company received the first U.S. government approval to send a mission to the moon. This decision was the first time any country utilized the Outer Space Treaty “heralding a new era of expanding space enterprise,” according to Moon Express.

Moon Express contracted Rocket Lab USA, another commercial company, in 2015 to launch up to five of their robots and spacecraft. California-based Rocket Lab launches its Electron rocket from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The company just had its first liftoff in May, becoming the first orbital-class rocket to do some from a private launch complex.

Moon Express also has plans for exploration beyond the lunar surface.

“The Moon Express MX family of flexible, scalable robotic explorers can reach the Moon and other solar system destinations from Earth orbit,” the company said.

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