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Moon Express MX-1 lander
An artist’s conception shows a Moon Express lander in lunar orbit. (Credit: Moon Express)

NASA wants suggestions for experiments that can be sent to the moon on commercial spacecraft – and Moon Express, one of the companies building those spacecraft, wants to kick in up to $500,000 per experiment.

The experiments would be aimed at filling the “strategic knowledge gaps” for lunar exploration, NASA said in today’s request for information, which was timed to coincide with this week’s meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group in Columbia, Md.

The time frame for the proposed experiments – in the range of 2017 to 2020 – seems tailor-made for Moon Express, which is one of several teams going after the top award in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

One of those X Prize teams will have to put a lander on the moon to send back data and video by the end of 2017, or else the prize goes away. Moon Express isn’t just interested in the X Prize money. The company, backed by Seattle-area tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, has made arrangements for at least three lunar missions as part of its plan to become a “FedEx to the moon.”

The company has launch contracts with Rocket Lab and recently won preliminary payload approval from the U.S. government for a commercial moon mission – which marks a first.

Florida-based Moon Express aims to make money by flying payloads to the moon, potentially including the experiments that result from today’s NASA solicitation. To sweeten the pot, Moon Express says it will provide as much as $500,000 each for as many as three of those experiments.

That adds up to $1.5 million in potential support for lunar payloads, under what Moon Express calls its “Lunar Scout Program.”

“Basically we are matching NASA’s funding with an incentive to fly with us, but also offering a real contribution to the overall cost of getting these payloads to the moon,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards told GeekWire in an email. “Our investments under the Lunar Scout Program would be into payloads selected by NASA to fly with us, and the $500,000 for each selected payload would be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with an intent on flexibility to maximize the support for payload to fly with us.”

Moon Express and another Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Astrobotic, have already received technical guidance from NASA under the terms of Lunar CATALYST, a program that doesn’t involve any exchange of money but does allow for exchanges of information. A third company, Masten Space Systems, is part of the Lunar CATALYST program but isn’t going after the X Prize.

The X Prize rules limit how much government funding can be received by competitors, but Richards said contracts for commercial services provided to governments wouldn’t fall under those limits. “Only ‘grants’ and other direct subsidies count,” he told GeekWire.

NASA made clear that, for now, it was merely seeking information about small lunar payloads that could help the space agency fill in its knowledge gaps. Such information “would be valuable to NASA as it works to understand the potential role of the moon in future exploration activities,” the agency said.

NASA doesn’t have any lunar surface missions currently in the works, and there’s no guarantee that any payloads would be selected for funding. For now, NASA is focusing on studying a piece of an asteroid up close in the mid-2020s, and then sending astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

Notre Dame engineering professor Clive Neal, who chairs the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, praised NASA and Moon Express for today’s initiatives.

“Public-private partnerships can further enable the exploration of the moon,” he said in a statement. “Programs of this kind will enable new lunar missions of interest to the national and international scientific and exploration communities.”

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