Science

Private moonshot gets the green light from US authorities

Moon Express' MX-1E lander cleared for 2017 missions

By Simon Sharwood

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The United States' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared private moon-shot aspirant Moon Express for a 2017 lift-off.

Moon Express says the approval makes it the first private company to venture beyond Earth orbit. It's not entirely right: in 1997 a communications satellite called AsiaSat 3 missed its intended orbit and was twice sent to the Moon in order to slow it down sufficiently to enter a useful Earth orbit. Those missions were not planned, whereas Moon Express is all about a visit to and landing on the Moon.

But let's not dwell on that detail: what we do know is that Moon Express has a contract to use New Zealand company Rocket Lab to use two of its Electron rockets for missions in 2017. Those missions will see Moon Express send its MX-1E spacecraft, a robot craft the FAA says is “capable of transfer from Earth orbit to the Moon, making a soft landing on the lunar surface, and performing post-landing relocations through propulsive 'hops'.”

We also know that one of the mission's payloads will include human remains sent to Luna as a commemoration for the deceased.

Moon Express' main game, however, is mining. The company thinks that the Moon is a potential future source of rare earths, the substances so prized for manufacture of electronic devices, and hopes to find a way to return them to Earth. Another resource the company prizes is water which it terms “the oil of the solar system” as it can be converted into rocket fuel that doesn't have to be hauled out of Earth's gravity well at colossal expense. The Moon is therefore “a gas station in the sky”, according to the company's canned blurb.

The company is also in play for the Lunar XPRIZE, the Google-backed competition offering US$30m to the first private organisation that sends something to the moon, moves it 500m and sends HD pics and vids back to Earth. ®

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