WASHINGTON — Moon Express, a company developing commercial lunar landers, said July 12 its first mission is still on schedule to launch by the end of this year in a bid to win the Google Lunar X Prize.
The Florida-based company used an event on Capitol Hill to unveil the design of that lander, known as MX-1E, as well as plans for future missions that include larger landers and sample return spacecraft.
That spacecraft, capable of placing up to 30 kilograms of payload onto the lunar surface, is the building block of a “flexible, scalable and innovative exploration architecture that can help us open the moon as a frontier for humanity,” said Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards.
Richards, standing next to a full-scale mockup of the MX-1E, said work on that initial spacecraft is going well. “We have flight hardware already,” he said, citing development of the lander’s engine, called PECO, that uses rocket-grade kerosene and high-test hydrogen peroxide propellants. Two of those engines have been built and will soon be undergoing tests.
Other components of the spacecraft are either undergoing testing — its laser altimeter, Richards said, is being tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center — or are being manufactured. That includes the main spacecraft bus, a carbon composite “unibody” design that includes both the spacecraft structure and propellant tanks. The company did not release photos or videos of that hardware.
Current plans call for integrating the spacecraft components by September at the company’s facility at the former Launch Complex 17/18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, then shipping the spacecraft to the New Zealand launch site of Rocket Lab, which will launch the spacecraft on its Electron rocket.
Richards admitted that the schedule was tight, both for spacecraft assembly and launch, in order to meet the deadline in the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize competition of launching by the end of the year. “We have a lot to do in a very short timeframe, and Rocket Lab has a lot to do in a very short timeframe,” he said.
That schedule is complicated by the fact that the Electron vehicle is still in development, having made its first, partially-successful launch May 25. The first stage of the rocket performed as planned, but the second stage failed to place a test payload into orbit. Rocket Lab has not released details about the flight, or announced when it will carry out its second of three planned test launches of the rocket.
There are several launches ahead of Moon Express on Rocket Lab’s manifest, Richards said, including a NASA mission under a Venture Class Launch Services contract awarded in 2015. “I would imagine there’s opportunity for shuffling” the order of those launches, he said. “The main thing is to get the vehicle operational now, then we can talk about when we can be on top of it.”
Richards said it would be disappointing if Moon Express did not launch before the prize deadline, but that the company wasn’t relying on the prize purse. “I really hope that we can be in a position to win it,” he said. “But from our business perspective, it’s not a dependency, and it never was. So we will be launching this mission as soon as we can.”
Future mission architecture
The initial MX-1E mission is the first in a series of missions in the planning stages by Moon Express, Richards said. A second mission, planned for launch in 2019, will attempt to land in the south polar regions of the moon, an area of considerable interest for both science and future human exploration given the presence of deposits of water ice in permanently-shadowed craters there.
The MX-1E is intended to be a building block for future larger landers. One design, the MX-2, would feature two MX-1E buses stacked on top of each other, with the capability for missions not just to the moon but also elsewhere in the inner solar system.
A larger lander, the MX-5, would use five MX-1E buses as engine pods to support a large lander platform capable of carrying 150 kilograms of payload to the lunar surface. An even larger spacecraft, the MX-9, would have nine engine pods and could carry out lunar sample return missions, using an MX-1E as the ascent vehicle.
Richards said that Moon Express could fly an MX-9 as soon as 2020 as a sample return mission, returning “tens of kilograms” of lunar samples. “We look forward opening up the opportunity for everyone to have lunar rocks,” he said, including for both scientific and commercial applications. “Only governments own moon rocks, and we want to change that.”
Richards said he hopes to have both commercial and government customers for the company’s missions, including tapping into what he sees as a renewed interest in lunar exploration by the Trump administration. “We want to time this with our customers in mind,” he said of the schedule of future missions, “particularly with NASA and what we see as the emerging American enthusiasm for returning to the surface of the moon. We believe we can play a big role in that.”
What that mix of customers will be, and when they will be ready to fly, is still uncertain, he acknowledged. “We’re predicting a market that doesn’t really yet exist,” he said. “We’re kind of skating towards where we believe the puck is going to be.”
A Florida start-up that is striving to become the first private company to put a spacecraft on the moon revealed an ambitious road map on Wednesday for a regular delivery service to send payloads there and elsewhere in the solar system.
Moon Express of Cape Canaveral, Fla., was founded in 2010 to win the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition offering a $20 million prize for the first private venture to get to the moon with a robotic lander by the end of 2017.
Robert D. Richards, the company’s chief executive, said Moon Express was on track to launch before the prize’s deadline. But even if the company does not win the prize, he said, Moon Express would still have a profitable future ferrying payloads for NASA and commercial customers.
“I think it’s big,” Dr. Richards said of the potential market, adding that he hoped its designs would “redefine the possible.”
The company released illustrations of its MX-1E lander, which it says will make the trip to the moon this year.
An earlier doughnut-shape design is now taller and thinner, about 3 feet wide and 4½ feet tall, more like a soda can with landing legs. Julie Arnold, a spokeswoman for Moon Express, said the lander would be a little bigger than the R2-D2 robot from the movie “Star Wars.”
The design change was made so that the lander would fit in a smaller rocket that Moon Express now plans to use for the first mission. “That’s considered our starter vehicle, our entry-level vehicle, to reach the moon,” Dr. Richards said.
The MX-1E then becomes like a Lego piece, allowing Moon Express to use it as a building block for larger spacecraft.
“Space vehicles and landers have traditionally been custom designed for each purpose,” Dr. Richards said. “What we’ve designed is a common core approach.”
Moon Express’s second mission would use a larger spacecraft that looks like two soda cans, one stacked on top of the other, essentially two MX-1Es. One is almost the same as the lander on the first mission. The second module — without landing legs — is a propulsion stage that would enable the spacecraft to reach the moon’s south pole, where ice persists inside craters that are eternally in shadows. .
Ice is a valuable resource for future human settlements, beyond providing water to drink. Water molecules broken up into hydrogen and oxygen could not only provide air for astronauts to breathe, but also rocket propellent. The ice at the bottom of the craters probably preserves molecules from the earliest days of the solar system, too, which could be a boon for scientists.
That same configuration, called MX-2, could also be sent as far away as the moons of Mars, but to land on Mars would require a more complex, more expensive vehicle beyond Moon Express’s current designs. “It can get basically anywhere in the inner solar system,” Dr. Richards said, meaning the neighborhood from the sun to Mars.
Two additional configurations would put together multiple building block propulsion modules in larger moon landers. A propulsion module at the center could serve as a smaller vehicle that could blast off from the moon, bringing back rocks and soil samples to Earth.
The cost of building and launching a MX-1E is less than $10 million, Dr. Richards said. NASA missions, by comparison, typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We want to collapse the cost of getting to the moon and by doing so, there is going to be a brand new market that is going to emerge,” Dr. Richards said.
He said he hoped that in the years to come, Moon Express would be launching at least twice a year.
Moon Express is not the only company betting on the moon, which has been largely overlooked since the end of NASA’s Apollo missions four decades ago.
The Google Lunar X Prize was intended to spur commercial endeavors, but the pace of progress has been slower and harder than organizers anticipated with the deadline extended twice. There will be no more extensions, X Prize officials have said.
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh dropped out of the competition last year because the 2017 deadline proved unrealistic. It is still developing its Peregrine lander and now plans a 2019 launch, with 11 customers signed up.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive. He said Astrobotic was aiming to launch once every two years and then increase the rate to once a year.
Blue Origin, the rocket company created by Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder, chairman and chief executive of Amazon, has also expressed interest in traveling to the moon, proposing a large robotic spacecraft called Blue Moon to ship supplies for a future human settlement there.
Quelle: The New York Times
Moon Express says first launch is 'definitely' happening in 2018
- Moon Express Chairman Naveen Jain told CNBC it's "definitely" going to launch its maiden mission in 2018
- Moon Express would become the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon if successful
- Jain said the company is eventually looking to create human colonies on the moon
Moon Express, a company planning to mine material on the moon, is "definitely" going to launch its first mission next year, and could have human colonies there within five years, Chairman Naveen Jain told CNBC on Thursday.
In January, the company said that it was targeting a date in late 2017 to send its lander to the moon. But that has been pushed back until 2018.
"It's definitely going to be next year, we are in the final stretches of it. And as you can imagine it's rocket science," Jain told CNBC in a TV interview from the Slush technology conference in Helsinki, Finland.
"We are really looking good and we are still hoping to launch the lander next year. And when we launch and land on the moon, not only (do) we become the first company to do so, we actually symbolically become the fourth superpower. And imagine the entrepreneurs doing things that only the three superpowers have done before."
Superpowers such as the U.S. and Russia have previously landed on the moon.
Moon Express is the first private company to get U.S. government approval to go to the moon. Landing there would be a historic feat.
The company is competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE which has a $20 million reward for the first private firm to put a spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit high definition video and images back to earth. The deadline for doing this is March 2018.
Jain did not give an exact date for the launch and said that getting the prize isn't necessarily the main priority.
The aim of Moon Express is to mine resources on the moon which can then be sent back to earth and used. Eventually though, Jain said the company is aiming to set up human colonies on the moon and forecast that this could happen in the next five years.
"I really believe that lunar is going to become like our eighth continent. We are going to have a permanent presence there, we are going to have internet there and we are going to be able to communicate just like we communicate from here to even Australia," Jain told CNBC.
Moon Express has partnered with Rocket Lab. The company makes rockets, and Moon Express is using Rocket Lab's booster to take its lander to the moon. Rocket Lab is planning a test for its Electron rocket on December 8.
Moon should be like international waters
There are regulations around space in the form of the Outer Space Treaty. The near 50-year-old agreement between Russia and the U.S. governs what you can and can't do in space. It forbids any country from claiming any sovereignty over any part of space.
Moon Express was able to get permission to go to the moon after talking with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates rocket launches. However, there is no formal process as of yet for a private company to get permission to go to the moon. Some of these rules need clarification, Jain said.
"First of all the moon should be treated no differently from the international waters. Nobody has to own the waters to be able to use the resources … to some extent we believe the laws are going to be clarified as the entrepreneurs continue to push that envelope," Jain told CNBC.
"And I have no doubt in my mind just like we got the permission for the first one (mission), we are going to get the permission for the second one, third one, the fourth one."