Startup company Moon Express is venturing into its first private lunar mission.
The startup is one of the teams that are competing for the Google Lunar XPrize, which would give $20 million as a reward to the first company that can successfully land on the surface of the moon, rove around and transmit images and videos from there. Moon Express is now close to securing an approval from the U.S. government to go on an unmanned mission to the moon.
The company collaborated with NASA and Rocket Lab and is planning to launch a rocket with an MX-1 lander and a 20-pound payload carrying scientific gears on the second half of 2017. If the government approves the mission, this will set the tone for future commercial space missions outside of Earth's orbit.
Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards is eagerly awaiting the federal government's decision on their request.
"We've been a regulatory pathfinder out of necessity," Richards tells the Wall Street Journal. "Only governments have undertaken space missions beyond Earth orbit."
In the report of Wall Street Journal, the company may be granted approval before the month ends. In case the company secures the approval, Moon Express still has challenges to face. For one, the rocket they plan to use is still untested and has an unapproved license for launch.
Federal clearance of the MX-1 lander and its payload, along with the approval of the team's two-week mission, must first be secured, not an easy task considering this is the first private lunar mission the U.S. government has been asked to endorse.
Washington does not have any approval process in place yet for commercial space missions. Moon Express is tasked with lobbying a number of federal agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and according to sources, the company's efforts are close to paying off.
Commercial Space Missions And Mining Explorations
For the approval to be granted, federal officials must first ensure that all companies planning to go on space missions adhere to the guidelines of the Outer Space Treaty. The U.S. National Space Policy recognizes [PDF] that "All nations have the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, in accordance with international law."
To date, several companies have expressed interest in venturing into commercial space missions but none of them have been approved yet except for Bigelow Aerospace (BA). The company was approved by the FAA to land its expandable space habitats on the lunar surface and also has exclusive rights to areas where their habitats are. BA also has mining rights to those territories.
Companies that have government approvals for private spaceflights and mining explorations are investing largely because of the higher returns these ventures have. A single asteroid, for instance, may have a wealth of minerals and other rare metals worth trillions of dollars.
Last month, the government of Luxembourg collaborated with Deep Space Industries toward its venture on space mining on low Earth orbit. The government announced that it is allotting $223 million for the said mission.