A small company with big aspirations to explore the moon said on Wednesday that it had received government permission to send a robotic probe on the first privately-backed lunar journey.
Mountain View, California-based startup Moon Express said it consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies to get the “green light” for its proposed launch next year.
“The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the U.S. government and a pathfinder for private sector commercial missions beyond the Earth’s orbit,” CEO and co-founder Bob Richards said in a statement. “We are now free to set sail as explorers to earth’s eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand the Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity.”
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The company’s MX-1E lunar lander is an initial test to further the company’s ultimate goal of exploring the surface of the moon to look for valuable materials such as platinum group metals and rare earth elements, then processing the materials and returning them to the earth. Moon Express will rely on another space startup, Rocket Lab, to launch the probe.
The company is aiming to win the Google Lunar X Prize for the commercial mission to the moon. To win the Google (GOOGL) prize, a group must send a probe to the moon, where it must travel at least 500 meters and transmit high-definition video back to the Earth. First prize is $20 million.
Moon Express is among a growing hoard of startups that have raised backing to break into the $250 billion space industry, currently dominated by old school defense contractors like Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT). The new entrants run the gamut from upstarts launching tiny CubeSats to much larger companies aiming to put communications satellites and manned missions into space backed by billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
Long-time space industry veteran Richards, trained in physics and astronomy as well as a former assistant to Carl Sagan, co-founded Moon Express in 2010 with billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, who serves as chairman. The third co-founder and chief strategy officer for Moon Express is Barney Pell, who worked on Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bing search engine as well as artificial intelligence projects for NASA.
The approval was complicated by the Outer Space Treaty, which requires the U.S. government to conduct “authorization and continuing supervision” of any space efforts aiming to travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The U.S. does not have formal approval or supervising processes in place for private missions, so the Moon Express proposal required an ad hoc process.