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Moon Express unveils robotic probe plans, aims lunar sample return by 2020

Animation still showing Moon Express' MX-9 return craft lifting off from the moon with a cache of lunar samples. (Moon Express)
July 12, 2017

— The first company to gain approval from the United States government to send a robotic spacecraft to the moon is now aiming to be the first to privately return lunar samples for scientists and the public by 2020.

Moon Express, a lunar resources and service firm based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, revealed its multi-tier exploration architecture on Wednesday (July 12), just one week shy of a year since the Federal Aviation Administration gave its permission for the company's MX-1E probe to land on the moon. A launch date for that first mission, dubbed "Lunar Scout," has yet to be set, but could come before the end of this year.

Two follow-on expeditions, announced on Wednesday, are focused on establishing the first permanent outpost at the moon's south pole by the end of the decade, including the return of the first non-government lunar samples to Earth.

Click to enlarge and view in a pop-up window. (Moon Express)

"We believe in redefining the possible," Moon Express said on its website, "by expanding Earth's economic and social sphere to our 8th continent, the moon."

MX family of explorers

To "open the lunar frontier for all," Moon Express unveiled its MX family of spacecraft capable of reaching the moon and other solar system destinations from Earth orbit.

"Our Moon Express exploration architecture is designed to support an American return to the surface of the moon, while collapsing the cost of lunar exploration for everyone," said Bob Richards, founder and CEO of Moon Express, in a statement.

Animation still showing the MX-IE spacecraft on the lunar surface. Moon Express' "Lunar Scout" expedition is aimed at being the first commercial mission to the moon. (Moon Express)

The company's four "explorers" can each be configured to operate as an orbiter, lander or deep space probe.

The Moon Express architecture begins with MX-1, billed as the "lowest cost planetary spacecraft ever." A single stage probe powered by the Moon Express PECO rocket engine, the MX-1 can deliver just over 65 pounds (30 kilograms) to the lunar surface, depending on its launch vehicle.

The MX-2 doubles the capability by adding a second stage to the MX-1. In addition to missions to the moon, the MX-2 has "enough punch" to reach Venus or the moons of Mars from low Earth orbit.

Moon Express' MX-5 can bring 330 pounds (150 kg) to the moon to support surface and cis-lunar operations. Outfitted with five PECO engines, the MX-5 spacecraft is intended as a workhorse for both lunar and deep space exploration. Combined with MX-1 or MX-2 staged systems, the MX-5 is capable of extending outward into the solar system.

The MX-2 doubles the capability of the MX-1 in cis-lunar space and brings the inner solar system within reach. (Moon Express)

Expanding on the MX-5 design, the MX-9 can deliver more than 1,100 pounds (550 kg) to the moon embarking from a geostationary transfer orbit. Further, the MX-9 is designed for sample return.

Arrive, prospect, return

To demonstrate the capabilities of its MX spacecraft and to begin commercially exploiting the resources on the moon, Moon Express plans to launch three missions by 2020.

Lunar Scout, which is aimed at being the first commercial voyage to the lunar surface, will land with several privately-funded payloads, including "MoonLight," a new generation of the Apollo laser ranging arrays, for Italy's INFN National Laboratories of Frascati and the University of Maryland; an optical telescope for the Hawaii-based International Lunar Observatory Association; and a Celestis memorial flight.

Pending the readiness of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket to launch the MX-IE spacecraft by the end of this year, and following completion of lunar surface operations supporting its Lunar Scout partners, Moon Express will attempt to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE by re-lighting its MX-IE probe's engine and transiting more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) as called for by the competition's rules.

Click to enlarge and view in a pop-up window. (Moon Express)

Following Lunar Scout, Moon Express next plans to launch "Lunar Outpost," a mission to "enable the first commercial presence and exploration" of the moon's South Pole. The mission will set up the first lunar research outpost, as well as prospect for water and minerals and support a variety of research instruments for the company's partners (still to be announced).

To complete its maiden trifecta, Moon Express will deploy "Harvest Moon," the first commercial lunar sample return mission. Slated to take place by 2020, the expedition's few pounds of moon rock and lunar soil brought back to Earth will support science, "as well as commercial purposes."

"The moon is an essential part of our human future, and a gateway to the solar system," stated Richards. "We want to help reopen the lunar frontier and redefine the possible for a new generation, inspiring and enabling a new era of exploration, discovery, commerce and adventure."

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