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Moon Express is first company to gain US approval to land on moon

Artist's rendering of Moon Express, Inc.'s MX-1 spacecraft taking a selfie on the surface of the moon. Moon Express is the first private company to be approved to land on the moon. (Moon Express)
Aug. 3, 2016

– For the first time in history, a company has been granted permission by the United States government to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon.

Moon Express, a commercial lunar resources and services firm based in Mountain View, California, got the green light to pursue its planned, privately-funded moon mission after consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the White House, the State Department and NASA.

"The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the U.S government," said Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express. "We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth's eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth's economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity."

The company's MX-1E probe is designed to be capable of transferring from Earth orbit to the moon, soft landing on the lunar surface and performing post-landing relocations through propulsive "hops." The Moon Express lander is its entry in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $30 million contest to to be the first to land a privately-funded robotic spacecraft on the moon.

Artist rendering of the Moon Express MX-1E lander in transit to the moon. The company plans its first mission in 2017. (Moon Express)

The FAA, which has authority over U.S. commercial space launches, determined on July 20 — the anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 — that the MX-IE payload does not put into jeopardy "public health and safety, safety of property, national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States."

Up until now, all U.S. commercial space companies have been limited to operations in Earth's orbit.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which forms the basis for international space law, requires that "the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty."

The FAA consulted with the State Department as to the relevant portions of the treaty as part of its determination.

"This determination does not extend to future missions by Moon Express, Inc. or similar missions from other entities," FAA officials stated in a release. "Any future requests for a payload determination from Moon Express, Inc. or another entity will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

The FAA noted that future missions may require additional authority to ensure conformity with the Outer Space Treaty.

"The sky is not the limit for Moon Express, it is the launch pad," said co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain. "In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth."

"In 15 years, the moon will be an important part of Earth's economy, and potentially our second home. Imagine that," Jain said in a statement.

Moon Express conducted the first flight tests of its MTV-1X lunar lander test vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida in 2014. Click to enlarge video and view in new pop-up window. (Moon Express)

Although the MX-IE is the first U.S. commercial spacecraft to receive authority to land on the lunar surface, it will not be the first private payload to travel to the moon.

In May 1998, an AsiaSat communications satellite that was stranded in a highly-elliptical Earth orbit was salvaged by Hughes Global Services using an Apollo-style free-return trajectory to swing it by the moon. The satellite made two lunar fly-bys to arrive in a useable orbit around the Earth.

Hughes declared the unprecedented maneuver as the first commercial mission to the moon.

Five years later in 2014, a briefcase-sized privately-funded spacecraft flew by the moon after it launched with China's Chang'e 5-T1 robotic probe. The Manfred Memorial Moon Mission, which was named for the founder of LuxSpace's parent company, OHB Systems, carried a ham radio and a radiation experiment. Like the Hughes satellite, the small spacecraft returned to Earth orbit.

Last month, Moon Express reached an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to license use of two former Delta II launch complexes, 17 and 18, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, for its lander development and flight test operations. In 2015, the company signed a contract to use Rocket Lab's Electron rocket system to launch three MX-I missions to the moon.

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