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Moon Express MX-1E
Moon Express’ MX-1E settles onto the lunar surface. (Moon Express Illustration)

Moon Express has laid out the plan it intends to follow to send probes to the surface of the moon and start bringing lunar samples back to Earth by 2020.

The plan calls for completing work on Moon Express’ MX-1E lander and its 3-D-printed PECO rocket engine, setting it on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle and sending it to the moon by the end of this year.

At least two more missions would follow, heading for the moon’s south polar region in 2019 and 2020.

The Florida-based company’s lunar exploration architecture was unveiled today at a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington, D.C.

Moon Express' Bob Richards
Bob Richards is co-founder and CEO of Moon Express. (Courtesy of Bob Richards)

In an advance interview, Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards told GeekWire that the plan was well past the proposal stage.

“We’re not ‘proposing’ this to anybody,” he said. “We’re doing it.”

A year ago, Moon Express received the federal government’s preliminary thumbs-up for its first moon shot  – becoming the first commercial venture to win such a go-ahead for a mission beyond Earth orbit.

Huge hurdles remain: The Electron rocket hasn’t yet gone through a fully successful orbital trial, and the MX-1E’s rocket engine still has to be tested. “We haven’t fired the thing yet,” Richards said.

Nevertheless, he voiced confidence that Moon Express will succeed in time to win the top award of $20 million in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition for commercial moon exploration.

Moon Express is competing against four other teams for the prize, and a launch deadline is looming at the end of the year.

Richards emphasized that the XPRIZE money isn’t the primary motivation for Moon Express’ efforts. “Nobody invested in Moon Express to win a prize,” he said. Rather, the company’s main focus is to carry payloads to the lunar surface for its customers, including the research teams behind the MoonLIGHT laser-ranging experiment and the International Lunar Observatory.

Moon Express also aims to get some business from NASA, which is expected to revise its expedition plan to put more emphasis on lunar operations and data collection as a prelude to Mars missions. The company is already partnering with NASA on a no-funds-exchanged basis through the space agency’s Lunar CATALYST program.

The piece de resistance would be the 2020 sample return expedition, known as “Harvest Moon,” which could be the first U.S. space shot to bring fresh material back from the moon since 1972. (China is planning to launch a lunar sample return mission later this year.)

“I have no doubt that a sample return mission will be a very profitable mission,” Richards said.

Richards didn’t lay out the projected cost for the planned expeditions, but past estimates of the cost for the first mission have ranged from $25 million to $60 million. In January, Richards said that mission was fully funded, thanks to a $20 million infusion of capital.

One of the venture’s major funders is Naveen Jain, a Seattle-area tech entrepreneur who co-founded Moon Express and serves as its executive chairman.

A spectrum of spacecraft

The mission architecture calls for building a spectrum of spacecraft, all powered by PECO engines. Richards said PECO is an acronym of sorts, standing for propulsion that’s eco-friendly. The engines would use hydrogen peroxide and RP-1 kerosene as propellants, rather than the highly toxic hydrazine monopropellant that’s typically used for thruster systems.

The MX-1E would be powered by a single PECO engine and measure a meter (yard) in width. The probe would be small enough to fit inside the low-cost Electron rocket’s fairing, but powerful enough to deliver up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) to the lunar surface.

For the XPRIZE mission, the MX-1E would be sent into low Earth orbit aboard an Electron, and then make its way to the moon during a four- to five-day cruise.

The spacecraft would go into a pole-to-pole orbit around the moon and set itself up for a landing near the lunar equator. Richards said the site still has to be chosen, but will not be anywhere near a historic site such as the Apollo landing zones.

Once the lander takes care of all the duties required by Moon Express’ commercial customers, it would fire its engines again for a 500-meter hop to satisfy the XPRIZE requirements. The primary mission on the lunar surface would last about 10 days to two weeks. Then it would power down for the long lunar night.

“We will say our goodbyes to the spacecraft as the sun sets,” Richards said.

To the moon’s south pole and beyond

Moon Express has designed a two-stage spacecraft known as the MX-2, basically made up of two MX-1’s yoked together, end to end. Such a spacecraft could fit inside Virgin Galactic’s Launcher One rocket, Richards said.

The MX-2 would have twice the MX-1’s payload capacity, making it suitable for more ambitious missions, either to the moon’s south pole or to deep-space destinations in the inner solar system.

“What we’re unveiling is a solar system exploration architecture,” Richards said.

The lunar south pole is of particular interest because past missions point to the presence of water ice deposits at the bottom of permanently shadowed craters there, as well as mountaintop sites that bask in permanent sunshine and can maintain continuous radio contact with Earth.

Exploring a potential permanent outpost would be the primary goal of Expedition 2 in 2019.

For Expedition 3, the sample return mission, Moon Express is going to need a bigger lander: One option would be the MX-5, a design that makes use of five PECO engines. It could carry as much as 150 kilograms (330 pounds) from low Earth orbit to low lunar orbit, with a range of configurations to support moon landings and surface operations.

The MX-5 spacecraft’s 3-meter-wide (10-foot-wide) deck would fit inside India’s PSLV rocket, or the unpressurized trunk of a SpaceX Dragon capsule, Richards said.

Moon Express’ MX-9 would be even bigger, measuring 4 meters (13 feet) in width with nine PECO engines. “You could put two, maybe three MX-9’s in a SpaceX Falcon 9 shroud,” Richards said.

Richards figures that spacecraft could transport up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) from geostationary transfer orbit to the lunar surface. Both the MX-5 and the MX-9 could be configured so that an MX-1 or MX-2 “pops out” for the return journey to Earth, or the next leg of an interplanetary robot’s odyssey.

“We’re creating a platform that people can build their dreams on,” Richards said.

The first dream could become a reality, or fade away, within six months.

Moon Express has a contract with Rocket Lab for up to five Electron launches, the first of which is set to lift off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Rocket Lab’s first flight test sent an Electron into space but fell short of sending it into orbit.

More tests are planned in the months ahead, and if Rocket Lab can work out all the kinks, Moon Express is expected to get one or two chances to go for the XPRIZE before the end of the year.

Although the launch pad is in New Zealand, Moon Express’ operations are headquartered at Launch Complex 17/18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. That’s where the company is setting up a spacecraft factory as well as a test range for engine firings.

Richards said the pace of operations should quicken this summer, leading up to the maiden space mission.

Yet another space venture is in the midst of a big construction project just down the road: Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is building a 750,000-square-foot factory for its New Glenn rocket – a rocket that Bezos says could make deliveries to the lunar surface by 2020.

Richards said he isn’t fazed by Bezos’ interest in lunar missions. In fact, he thinks it’s fantastic.

“I believe that everything that Blue Origin is doing is very synergistic with everything that we’re announcing,” he said.

Who knows? Maybe someday the New Glenn will be launching MX-9 probes to the moon, Mars and beyond. “We would absolutely love to use the New Glenn,” Richards said.

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