A privately owned company plans to use robotic spacecraft to launch a series of commercial missions to the moon, some 45 years after NASA´s last lunar landing, officials said on Wednesday.
Cape Canaveral, Florida-based Moon Express is developing a fleet of low-cost robotic spacecraft that can be assembled like Legos to handle increasingly complex missions, founder and Chief Executive Officer Bob Richards said in an interview.
Ultimately the company plans to establish a lunar outpost in 2020 and set up commercial operations on the Moon, mining material and returning it to Earth to sell.
The initial spacecraft, known as MX-1E,is a similar size and shape to the R2D2 droid from Star Wars, and is slated to fly before the end of the year aboard a Rocket Lab Electron booster, which launches from New Zealand.
It will hop across the lunar surface on its legs.
Moon Express hopes the endeavour will clinch a $20 million prize from Google, but Richards said the win was not essential.
Moon Express has raised more than $45 million from private investors to build its first spacecraft and buy launch services.
‘The Google Lunar X Prize … is icing on the cake,’ Richards said.
Google is offering a top prize of $20 million for the first privately funded team to land a spacecraft on the moon; have it fly, drive or hop at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and relay pictures and video back to Earth.
The second prize is $5 million.
Contenders have until Dec. 31 to launch their spaceships.
Google also is offering bonus money for other milestones, such as traveling 5 km (3.1 miles), touching down near an Apollo landing site or finding evidence of water.
Richards presented the spacecraft design in Washington on Wednesday, revealing plans for a single, modular spacecraft that can be combined to form successfully larger and more capable vehicles.
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.
Besides vying for the X Prize, Moon Express will fly science equipment and payloads for at least three paying customers, including Houston-based Celestis, which offers memorial spaceflights for cremated remains.
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