Moon Express gains regulatory approval for Moon shot
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved Moon Express’ MX-1E spacecraft for a commercial landing on the Moon – the first time any private company has gained regulatory approval to send payloads beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO).
The MX-1E spacecraft is a lander capable of making a transfer from the Earth to the Moon, make a soft landing on the lunar surface and perform post-landing “hops” in order to relocate itself. On Aug. 3, Moon Express announced this mission approval, which came out of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
“The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the U.S. government and a pathfinder for [the] private sector commercial mission beyond the Earth’s orbit,” said co-founder and CEO Bob Richards. “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 plans to launch to the Moon as early as late 2017 as part of the 2007 Google Lunar XPRIZE – which offers a $30 million for the first team to land on the Moon, travel 1,640 feet (500 meters) across the surface and transmit back high definition video and images.
Other teams have until the end of 2016 to announce a verified launch contract to remain in the competition and complete their mission by the end of 2017.
In October 2015, Moon Express announced a contract with Rocket Lab to launch three of their spacecraft to land on the Moon. Two are expected to occur in late 2017 and will utilize the yet-to-fly Electron rocket to send the MX-1E to LEO. Once in orbit, the spacecraft’s onboard propulsion will do the rest to travel to and land on the Moon.
The FAA approval, which came in the form of a July 20, 2016, fact sheet, deemed the launch of the payload would not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.
The fact sheet claims that as long as the information provided to the FAA does not change and the regulatory agency does not become aware of any issue the review did not consider that could affect the determination, then this review is final.
This approval is required by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law. In particular, Article VI of the treaty requires activities of non-governmental entities, such as private companies, in space, on the Moon and other celestial bodies, gain authorization and supervision by the appropriate country.
However, the FAA approval only applies to the late 2017 flight and does not apply to future missions by Moon Express or similar missions from other companies. Future requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
This MX-1E is a smaller version of the company’s MX-1, optimized for the Electron rocket. According to a 2015 Space News report, the company had originally planned to build a larger lander based on a common spacecraft bus developed for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. They later developed a revised, smaller design before ultimately shrinking the design even further in order to fly atop the Electron.
If successful, Moon Express is already planning for increased interest in lunar missions. The company website states the recent discovery of water on the Moon is an “economic game changer” for the future of space exploration.
After the MX-1E missions, the company will begin to scale up the hardware. Already, Moon Express has entered into an agreement with the 45th Space Wing to utilize Space Launch Complexes 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The site will be used in the development and flight test operations for the company’s lunar landers.
Ultimately, the company hopes to help lower the cost of space exploration to enable the use the Moon’s natural resources for even further exploration.
“The sky is not the limit for Moon Express – it is the launchpad. This breakthrough ruling is another giant leap for humanity. Space travel is our only path forward to ensure our survival and create a limitless future for our children,” said co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain. “In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals and Moon rocks back to Earth.”
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.