The Moon could soon be open for business.
After several years of secrecy, a company called Moon Express revealed the scope of its ambitions on Wednesday. And they are considerable. The privately held company released plans for a single, modular spacecraft that can be combined to form successfully larger and more capable vehicles. Ultimately the company plans to establish a lunar outpost in 2020 and set up commercial operations on the Moon.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Moon Express says it is self-funded to begin bringing kilograms of lunar rocks back to Earth within about three years. “We absolutely intend to make these samples available globally for scientific research, and make them available to collectors as well,” said Bob Richards, one of the company’s founders, in an interview with Ars.
Moon Express was founded in 2010 to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which offered $20 million to the first privately funded team that lands a vehicle on the Moon, has it travel at least 500 meters, and transmits back high-definition images and video. The deadline for that prize is the end of 2017. While Moon Express says it has an outside chance to still claim the prize, its commercial ambitions now far exceed a simple, one-off lander.
At the center of the company’s architecture is the the single stage MX-1 spacecraft that can deliver up to 30kg to the lunar surface. This vehicle is similar in size and shape to the R2-D2 droid from Star Wars, but a little bigger, Richards said. Launched inside a conventional rocket payload fairing, the MX-1 is powered by a single PECO rocket engine.
This 3D-printed, regeneratively cooled engine operates on highly refined kerosene (RP-1) and hydrogen peroxide. Richards said two of these engines have already been manufactured, and the company will conduct flight qualifying tests at its Cape Canaveral-based range this year. The PECO engine will serve as the common core for all of its MX vehicles.
Other configurations will combine two, five, and nine MX-1 spacecraft to perform increasingly capable missions to the Moon, and possibly deeper into the Solar System, such as the moons of Mars. The MX-9 spacecraft would be able to deliver up to 500kg to the lunar surface, including an ascent vehicle that could return to Earth.
The various configurations of the MX spacecraft are sized to fit within different launchers. For example, a single MX-1 spacecraft will fit within Rocket Lab’s slim Electron vehicle, and an MX-2 could fit within Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne rocket. Additionally, as many as three MX-9 vehicles could fit within SpaceX’s much larger Falcon 9 rocket fairing, Richards said.
The proposed hardware opens up a suite of missions on the lunar surface, three of which Moon Express said it has funding to support. The company’s initial mission is “Lunar Scout,” which seeks to become the first commercial voyage to the Moon. This will carry several payloads, including the International Lunar Observatory, “MoonLight” by the INFN National Laboratories of Frascati and the University of Maryland, and a Celestis memorial flight. This mission will also attempt to win the lunar XPRIZE.
The company’s second proposed flight, the “Lunar Outpost” expedition, will seek to establish a lunar research outpost at the South Pole of the Moon. NASA and others are highly interested in the potential to turn water ice in shadowed lunar craters into rocket propellant. This lander will prospect for water and useful minerals, Richards said.
The third flight, “Harvest Moon”, would take place by 2020 and will attempt to return a few kilograms of material from the surface of the Moon. In this scenario, a single MX spacecraft would serve as an ascent vehicle from the lunar surface, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere to land in the ocean or on land. “The sample return mission is justifiable for commercial purposes, we are expecting to self fund that,” Richards said.
Value of Moon rocks
How much are lunar rocks worth? Quite a lot. NASA has never sold any of the 842 pounds of lunar material its six Apollo missions returned from the Moon. However, in 1970, the Soviet Union launched the robotic Luna 16 mission, which succeeded in returning 101 grams of material from the surface of the Moon. A fraction of this material made it to the open market.
In 1993, Sotheby’s auctioned off 0.2 grams of these Soviet rocks in three holders (each with a magnifying glass to see the specks of lunar dust). This auction raised $442,500 in total, and is the only data point we have for the value of material returned directly to Earth from the Moon, said Robert Pearlman editor of the space history site CollectSpace.com.
Another data point may come later this month, on July 20, when Sotheby’s auctions off the outer protective bag used by Neil Armstrong during Apollo 11 for the first sample of lunar rock collected on the Moon. That material was put in an inner bag, which was then stored in this outer decontamination bag. The outer bag has some specks of lunar dust on it, and is likely to fetch $2-$4 million. “I don't think Moon Express will have any trouble finding a market,” Pearlman said.
(Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain happily let his imagination riff on possible Moon rock applications when we talked with him earlier this spring: “The Moon has been a symbol of love for hundreds of generations,” Jain said. “‘Everyone gives someone a diamond, if you love someone enough, you give them the Moon.”)
Successfully demonstrating missions to the lunar surface could pay off in another way for Moon Express, too. Likely sometime this fall, NASA will issue a “Request for Proposals” from companies to help the agency in its efforts to determine how accessible water is at the lunar poles, and whether it could be easily turned into rocket propellant. If—and yes, this remains a big if—Moon Express has a working architecture by late this year or early 2018, something which no other company or country has, it could turn into a large government contract.
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