*Updated 6/19./2017* In the original article, we failed to accurately describe the U.S. government regulatory process for Moon Express’s mission approval. After a helpful comment from Moon Express, we included the details of how they received “mission approval.”
Moon Express is gearing up to launch the first ever private moon landing by the end of 2017. Then, in 2020, the company hopes to be the first private company to launch a moon mining mission.
No private company has ever gone beyond low Earth orbit, reserved until now for government space agencies like those in the United States, Russia and China.
Aside from government-funded programs in the three countries to build lunar bases, private companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin–which have their own programs to venture beyond the orbit and the ISS to reach as far as Mars–don’t have Moon plans.Moon Express hopes to mine the Moon by 2020Click To Tweet
But it seems that 2017 is the year that ushers in a new era of space exploration by commercial companies.
Five Finalists of Google’s Lunar XPRIZE
Private companies’ race to the Moon is officially underway. The Lunar XPRIZE is a contest launched by Google, which has announced the selection of five teams out of sixteen competitors.
Moon Express Inc. (MoonEx), a start-up founded in 2010, has been selected by the GLXP, and claims to be able to send its lunar lander, MX-1E, to the Moon utilizing Electron, a launch rocket developed by Rocket Lab. Moon Express received GLXP verification and approval in December 2015.
Other than Moon Express, four other companies compete to win the race: Israeli Spaceil, which was the first to receive approval by GLXP in 2015; Synergy Moon, an international team; Indian Team Indus, and last to receive approval, Hakuto, a Japanese startup.
According to Google’s guidelines, to win the $20 million USD prize, a team should be the first to land a craft on the Moon surface, make it go at least 500 meters and send high-definition images back to Earth. The second and third teams who accomplish the mission will each receive a $5 million USD award.
Will Moon Express be the First Private Company to Mine the Moon?
While Moon Express is hard at work to meet the deadlines and requirements of the Google’s Lunar XPRIZE this year, the company is already looking beyond that goal. Getting its MX-1E spacecraft on the lunar surface first will gain the company $20 million, recognition and technical experiment to carry out its next mission.
Moon Express’s main objective is to seek resources that can be commercially exploited. A successful trip to mine the Moon could open the doors for other companies to do the same.
By 2020, the company aims to launch a mission to the Moon and extract a scoop of lunar dirt, a part of which will be sold. According to NASA’s JPL, three elements can be harvested from the Moon: water, helium-3 (energy) and rare-earth-elements (REEs or REMs), important for modern electronics and which are now mainly produced in China.
Private Space Mission Approval: a Gray Area?
The company has received formal authorization from the U.S. government and the FAA to the first private enterprise ever to land its spacecraft on the Moon as well as mine the Moon.
The decision was made possible by the Space Act, voted into law in 2015, that allows U.S. private investors to appropriate the resources extracted from the Moon or any other object in the Solar System. But it’s more complicated than that:
As we were informed by Moon Express, despite the Space Act of 2015 explicitly confirming private sector rights to space resources obtained legally, the passing of this act identified “a gap in U.S. law.” That gap exists where there is no regulatory body for approving private sector space missions.
As Moon Express writes, “Basically, there isn’t a ‘Space DMV’ to ‘authorize and supervise’ private sector activities beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon or anywhere else, in compliance with U.S. obligations as a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.”
As a result, in order for Moon Express to gain “Mission Approval” from the U.S., which they received on July 20th, 2016, the company proposed a “patch” to the U.S. government.
Moon Express understood that the government would need time to create a uniform framework for approving private sector space missions, and so their “patch” would enable a maiden voyage while more permanent regulation is determined.
Moon Express wrote, “The U.S. Congress is active in trying to find a solution, and we are hopeful that the path for U.S. enterprise in space will be enabled with a ‘light touch’ regulatory framework while remaining in compliance with international treaty obligations.”
Moon Express CEO Bob Richards testified to the U.S. congress with regards to this situation, which you can watch in the video above.
Thanks Moon Express!