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Moon Express MX-1 lander
An artist’s conception shows the Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft orbiting the moon in preparation for landing. (Credit: Moon Express)

Moon Express, the lunar exploration venture backed by Seattle tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, says it’s asking the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a payload review of its spacecraft and plans for a mission to the moon in 2017.

The request is aimed at heading off regulatory uncertainty about the mission, which is aimed at winning the Google Lunar X Prize.

Moon Express ranks among the front-runners in the $30 million competition, which calls for teams to send landers to the moon, travel along the surface and send back real-time video by the end of next year.

Such a feat would represent a first for commercial space ventures, but because it’s unprecedented, it’s not fully clear what kind of regulatory go-ahead would be required for a U.S.-based company. So far, only governmental space programs have sent probes beyond Earth orbit.

Moon Express’ plan calls for the launch to be provided by Rocket Lab, which is structured as a U.S. corporation with a New Zealand subsidiary. The launch would take off from a pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula that’s been under construction. Last month, Rocket Lab qualified its Rutherford rocket engine for flight, but it hasn’t yet started testing its Electron launch vehicle.

Even though liftoff would take place in New Zealand, using a New Zealand-built rocket, the launch would have to be licensed by the FAA, Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said in a tweet.

In a news release, Moon Express said its representatives have consulted with U.S. government officials to fashion an interim “Mission Approval” process, aimed at making sure the 2017 mission doesn’t run afoul of regulatory requirements or international treaty obligations.

Today’s submission of an “enhanced payload review application” to the FAA initiated the process, Richards said.

The arrangement combines existing launch approval procedures with voluntary disclosures aimed at assuring the U.S. government that Moon Express won’t interfere with existing lunar operations or with heritage sites on the moon’s surface. Moon Express also will declare its intent to respect international conventions on planetary protection that call for avoiding harmful contamination of the moon.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., hailed the interim arrangement.

“Regulatory uncertainty could become the greatest risk for non-traditional space activities,” Bridenstine said. “The mission approval framework created by Moon Express is an elegant solution to increase regulatory certainty and comply with treaty obligations. I look forward to building off this proposal in the American Space Renaissance Act, comprehensive space legislation I will be introducing soon.”

Last year, Congress passed a law supporting the rights of commercial space ventures to extract, use and sell resources from the moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies, consistent with international obligations.

In addition to Moon Express, Israeli-based Team SpaceIL has struck a deal for a Google Lunar X Prize launch in 2017 with an assist from SpaceX and Seattle’s Spaceflight Inc. U.S.-based Astrobotic is working on launch arrangements as well.

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