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Moon Express lander
An artist’s conception shows Moon Express’ lander on the way to the lunar surface. (Credit: Moon Express)

Moon Express, the lunar exploration venture co-founded by Seattle entrepreneur Naveen Jain, has gotten the “all systems go” signal for its bid to put a robotic lander to the moon and win the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

The thumbs-up comes in the form of XPRIZE’s certification of Moon Express’ launch contract with Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab USA. If all goes according to schedule, Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle will blast off from a pad in New Zealand or the U.S. in 2017, sending Moon Express’ MX-1E lander to the lunar surface.

Next year, Rocket Lab is due to begin Electron test launches from a site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The company is also working with Alaska Aerospace Corp., which owns and operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Kodiak Island. In October, Rocket Lab won a $6.95 million NASA contract to launch a payload to low Earth orbit in the 2016-2017 time frame.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE flight would have to go much farther: The rules call for a privately funded lander to touch down on the moon, transport itself at least 500 meters (546 yards) and send video back to Earth. The first team to do all that within the rules wins $20 million. Another $10 million has been set aside for other prizes.

There are a couple of catches to the competition, which is funded by Google and managed by the California-based XPRIZE organization. To qualify, teams have to win certification of their launch contracts by the end of 2016, and they have to complete the mission by the end of 2017.

Today’s announcement means that two teams – Moon Express and Israel-based SpaceIL – have gotten over the first hurdle. SpaceIL plans to have its lander launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket under an arrangement negotiated with Seattle-based Spaceflight.

“Having multiple teams attempting actual missions to the moon is a hallmark of a genuine competition,” Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE, said in a news release. “Verified launch contracts are the ‘bona fides’ that teams need to demonstrate that they are in it to win it. Moon Express’ accomplishment has brought XPRIZE closer to the moon.”

Fourteen other teams haven’t yet submitted launch plans for certification. One of those teams, Astrobotic, says it’s still working on the arrangements for liftoff. Two other competitors, Japan’s Team Hakuto and Chile’s Team AngelicvM, have rocket rideshare agreements with Astrobotic. Mexico’s space agency, Lunar Mission One and several other ventures also plan to send ride-along payloads..

Moon Express CEO Bob Richards told GeekWire that his company is in the middle of its final round of fundraising before the beginning of lunar missions. More than $31 million has been raised already. “We remain very strong on our funding,” he said.

Richards said Moon Express sees the prize as “spurring an industry, and not just a stunt.” The company has laid plans for three to five Rocket Lab launches to the moon, and it’s reached agreements with a number of clients interested in having their payloads ride along:

  • Italy-based INFN-LNF and the University of Maryland want to send MoonLIGHT laser-ranging arrays to augment the retro-reflectors that went to the moon with the Apollo missions. The instruments could be used for science projects, including tests of general relativity and quests for new physics.
  • The International Lunar Observatory Association is working with Moon Express to put remote-controlled telescopes on the moon’s surface. Eventually, the association wants to put its flagship ILO-1 instrument at the lunar south pole.
  • Celestis plans to send cremated remains to the moon as cosmic memorials. The Texas-based company also has a ride-along agreement with Astrobotic.
  • Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center want to deliver a miniature greenhouse called LPX to the lunar surface. After landing, water would be added to an assortment of basil, turnip and Arabidopsis seeds tucked in the soil inside a sealed container. “We’ll see what happens,” Richards said. “We hope what happens will be the first plants on another world.”
  • Richards said Moon Express was also looking into a project that would send an archive of digitized biological data to the moon, plus as an experiment to study how well microbes weather outer-space conditions. The latter experiment would follow the model set by the Planetary Society’s LIFE Project.

Jain, who is Moon Express’ co-founder and chairman, said in a statement that the lunar missions could help change the economic model for space exploration.

“”Moon Express is building disruptive technologies that will forever change the cost of access to space, including the asteroids and even the moons of Mars,” he said. “We are now taking advantage of exponential technology like 3-D printing and inexpensive sensors to collapse the capital needed to access the moon. Coupling these technological advancements with today’s news about our Rocket Lab launch contract is a huge step forward for us in opening whole new markets for space exploration.”

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