Moon Express, the first private company in history to receive government permission to travel beyond Earth's orbit, announced Tuesday that it raised another $20 million in private equity financing to fund its maiden lunar mission to take place in late 2017. This brings the total amount of private investment to $45 million from investors that include Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, Collaborative Fund and Autodesk.
What may have added impetus to investor interest in Moon Express is President Trump's picks for the NASA transition team — Charles Miller and Chris Shank — and the leading candidate to become the next NASA administrator, GOP Rep. Jim Bridenstine. All support commercial space ventures and manned exploration — including lunar missions.
If successful, the new MX-1 lunar lander from Moon Express would not only win the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, it would also help jump-start a new era of space exploration. Up until now, only government-funded missions from the United States, China and Russia have landed on the moon.
Last year the U.S. government made a historic ruling to allow the company to engage in peaceful commercial lunar exploration and discovery following consultations with the FAA, White House, State Department and NASA.
The company's challenge now is to meet the XPRIZE requirement: Make a soft landing on the moon, travel 500 meters across its surface, and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. All tasks must be done before the end of this year.
According to co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain, "Moon Express now has all the capital it needs to land its small robotic spacecraft on the surface of the moon in November or December of 2017." The company's goal is twofold: 1) mine the moon for valuable resources, such as Helium-3, gold, platinum group metals, rare earth metals and water; and 2) help researchers develop human space colonies for future generations.
The ability to mine Helium-3 could have a tremendous impact on Earth and the environment. Helium-3 is a clean, non-radioactive energy source that could potentially power nuclear fusion reactors. Theoretically, a relatively small amount could produce enough clean fuel to power entire industries, if not the entire planet. It's for this reason that the Chinese have also announced plans to mine Helium-3 on the moon.
Another draw is tapping water on the moon's surface. Hydrogen and oxygen can then be separated to create rocket fuel for deep-space missions to Mars and beyond. Essentially, the moon can serve as a fueling station for spacecraft.
"This year is a watershed year for Moon Express and America's commercial space industry," said Bob Richards, Moon Express' co-founder, president and CEO. "Just before the presidential election, NASA released a call for concepts for payloads to the moon to be delivered by private companies. That shows a rising tide of interest in the moon by our nation's space industry."
Thanks to a unique public-private partnership with NASA, Moon Express has access to NASA engineering expertise. It has licensed space launch complexes 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral from the U.S. Air Force. The six-year-old start-up with a team of 30 already has contracts for payloads from the private sector and scientific community. They include the delivery of the international lunar observatory on the moon, retroreflector arrays to test principles of Einstein's general relativity theory and lunar geology, and human remains and DNA samples for space burial from Celestis.
In addition, Moon Express hopes to snare a contract for a payload from NASA for its first mission, said Richards.
Moon Express has contracted five electron rockets from New Zealand-based launch provider Rocket Lab for its missions. In the future, it plans to be rocket agnostic and use a variety of rocket providers.
European Space Agency has also expressed interest in partnering with Moon Express. ESA has plans to develop lunar colonies in the future.
Now the race is on to see who will win the Google Lunar XPRIZE and what player will land on the moon first. Contenders include SpaceIL from Israel, Team Inus from India and international team Synergy Moon.
At the same time, superpowers are busy preparing their own missions. China has unveiled plans to visit the moon's north and south poles late this year and return to Earth with rock samples. In 2018 it plans to send its Chang'e-4 lander to the dark side of the moon to carry out patrolling surveys. At the same time, Russia's Roscosmos is planning a manned space exploration base on the moon.
As Naveen explains, "he and his partners are just a group of entrepreneurs trying to move humanity forward. We want to leave a legacy for future generations."