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A start-up's race to harvest the moon's treasures

In a race against global superpowers, Moon Express — a private venture founded by billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, space technology guru Dr. Barney Pell and space futurist Dr. Bob Richards — has cleared a path for private U.S . companies looking to explore and commercialize space.

Today the company is the first private enterprise in history to receive U.S. government approval to travel beyond Earth's orbit and undertake a deep space mission. The goal: to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon's surface in 2017 and analyze and explore its valuable resources that can be used on Earth.

The moon is a treasure chest that has vast amounts of iron ore, water, rare Earth minerals and precious metals, as well as carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste. Experts concur that the value of these resources are in the trillions of dollars.

The moon can also serve as a fuel depot station for interplanetary space exploration. It has massive amounts of ice (H2O) trapped on the lunar poles that can be used for rocket fuel.

"Getting this approval shows what a few entrepreneurs are capable of," said Chairman Naveen Jain. "It's a good first step for commercial space pioneers."

The landmark ruling issued by the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation provides for interagency approval of the Moon Express 2017 lunar mission under the authority of the Secretary of Transportation, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies to review and license commercial payloads missions in outer space. It adds a series of voluntary disclosures to help the federal government fulfill its supervisory obligations under the Outer Space Treaty and ensure U.S. national security.

Moon Express required this special ruling because the U.S. government has no standard method in place that would authorize and license private commercial mission operations to outer space, including the moon.

"This is as much a giant leap for government as it is for private enterprise," said Charles Chafer, CEO of Space Services Holdings and co-founder of Celestis, a space burial service.

Millions are at stake for Moon Express. As part of Google's Lunar XPRIZE competition, the company stands to be awarded $20 million if it successfully lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth.

Rendering of "Moon Express"
Source: Moon Express
Rendering of "Moon Express"

Already, Moon Express has six payloads on its manifest for its first mission, planned for the second half of next year. According to Moon Express CEO Richards, customers include Google Lunar X Prize; the International Lunar Observatory; Celestis; and a partnership between the University of Maryland and the National Laboratories of Frascati, Italy.

The mission will be a baseline where a camera will be set up to take photos and video. According to Richards, the International Lunar Observatory plans to put a "mooncam" (a small astronomical observatory) accessible on the internet on the moon's surface. Google plans to provide access to these images through YouTube — democratizing information about this important celestial body.

The company also expects NASA will send one or two payloads on the first Moon Express mission, Richards said. Dr. Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center who is involved in planning for future Mars missions, has expressed interest in sending an incubated mustard seed plant to the moon to see how plants can be gestated in lunar gravity and radiation.

"This should have a positive impact on the world and offers new paths for the future of humanity." -Dr. Barney Pell, co-founder and vice chairman, Moon Express

At the same time, INFN and the University of Maryland will plant new retroreflectors on the moon, called "Moonlight," which will allow for more accurate measurements of the Earth-moon distance and test general relativity and other theories of gravity. These instruments work as laser pulses are sent from a telescope on Earth to the retroreflector array on the moon.

Unlike the older, NASA Apollo moon missions, the Moon Express mission will be a fraction of the cost. The company will be using its robotic MX-IE lunar lander on Rocket Lab USA's Electron rocket. According to Jain, the smaller rocket costs under $5 million for a launch. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can cost in excess of $50 million for a launch, Jain said. That represents a significant discount from legacy pricing in the aerospace industry, which can be as high as $100 million per launch, according to published reports.

The contract gives Moon Express the option of launching from its recently acquired site Space Launch Complex 17 and 18 in Cape Canaveral, or Rocket Lab's launch site in New Zealand. According to Richards, the company expects the first mission will launch from New Zealand.

American space experts are hopeful the government ruling will stoke moon exploration at a time when competition is heating up with China. In 2013, China became the third nation to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon with their Chang'e 3 lander. Next year, its Chang'e 5 mission is slated to bring back moon samples. China has expressed intentions to explore the moon for resources including fusion-ready helium-3.

Pell — who had a long career at NASA building artificial intelligence systems for NASA missions before becoming an entrepreneur — sees the moon as a great business opportunity. Thanks to exponential technology advancements, accessing this "eighth continent" has become economically feasible.

As he sees it: "This should have a positive impact on the world and offers new paths for the future of humanity."