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Moon Express rockets closer to planned lunar landing

More than $60 million in possible NASA and Google awards is at stake for the first commercial space company on the moon.

Moon Express, a start-up that plans to mine the lunar surface for rare and precious metals, took one step closer to making its moonshot a reality on Thursday, signing a deal with Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab for three robotic lunar craft launches starting in 2017.

Among the moon's mineral riches: gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and Helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste.

Moon Express has won more than $500,000 under NASA's Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data Program and $1.25 million as a part of Google's Lunar XPRIZE competition, which will award $30 million to the first company that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth.

Google awarded the company money for being the only company of 16 to test a prototype of its lander, putting Moon Express ahead of the competition in the ongoing private space race to the moon. The Moon Express MX spacecraft has gone through several design iterations and is designed to produce a family of spacecraft/landers capable of reaching the moon's surface from Earth's orbit.

More than $60 million in possible NASA and Google awards is at stake for the first commercial space company on the moon.

The Mountain View, California-based company is also a partner in NASA's Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar Catalyst) program to spur commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the surface of the moon. In addition to Moon Express, NASA is also working with Astrobotic Technologies of Pittsburgh and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, to develop commercial robotic spacecrafts.

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, a co-founder of Moon Express, said that rocket technology has accelerated in the last year to make it possible for Moon Express to build lunar landers that can use small rockets designed for low earth orbit like Rocket Lab's design, which 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.

Jain said the Moon Express design employs two small landers on top of each other, the first acting like a booster rocket and the second one the lander for the lunar surface. This allows it to use small rockets to reach the moon, and extend the range of what Rocket Lab intends for its technology.

The contract gives Moon Express the option of launching from its recently acquired site Space Launch Complex 36 in Cape Canaveral or Rocket Lab's launch site in New Zealand. The plan is to attach the MX-1 lander to a satellite that will take it into a low orbit over the Earth. From there the MX-1 will fire its own rocket, powered by hydrogen peroxide, and launch from that orbit to complete its travel to the moon's surface.

Moon Express' previous goal was to have a lander on the moon by 2016, but Google has moved back the date for the Lunar XPRIZE to 2017. Jain said the push back in the moon deadline has allowed the company to also work on another project to build technology for return vehicles from the International Space Station, moon and beyond.

Major investors for Rocket Lab, founded in 2007, include venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners, as well as aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin.

By Michael Sheetz, special to CNBC.com