We’re Headed Back To The Moon, But It’s A Private Mission — Are We Starting To Unlock Lunar Resources?

The race is on. Sixteen different companies are working on a very important mission: getting the first private vehicle to the moon. Now, one of those companies has actually taken the steps to make that dream a reality.

Moon Express has secured three different launch contracts and are planning robotic launches in 2017, Popular Mechanics reported. The other two are backup, said CEO Bob Richards.

“Getting to the moon is really hard. We wanted to be in a situation where we weren’t just an all-in-one-basket mission because, hey, things happen. Landing… the first time would be fantastic, but we want to have some backup plans and to be able to try it again and then try it again.”

The company will partner with Rocket Lab. According to Space.com, they’ve signed a five-launch deal; three launches are a-go, and the other two are optional right now. These private trips will be unmanned.

Rocket Lab’s liquid-oxygen-and-kerosene Electron rocket will blast Moon Express’ MX-1 lander into space. The idea is to test the lander and its systems to make sure it lands softly, can move around, get samples, and then head back to Earth.

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If this private mission goes well, they will try a sample-return, Richards said, adding, “I don’t know if we’ll do that on the second mission, but I sure hope we’re trying it by the third mission, if all is going that well.”

In case the first three times don’t work out, the other two will give them more chances to get it right.

Rocket Lab is building its launcher from scratch; it’ll be powered by 3D-printed engines. The company is based in California and New Zealand and has gotten funding from Lockheed Martin and venture capitalists and its mission is to provide the first small satellite launches. The MX-1 landers will be small, too, but are scalable and can adapt to the company’s needs.

And the smaller, the cheaper.

A private mission could only cost $4.9 million per launch with Rocket Labs. As comparison, Richard Branson’s LauncherOne may go for $10 million. The most established space companies have a price tag up to six times that high.

So why is anyone prepping for a private moon mission? Richards’ company wants the commercial missions to start unlocking its resources.

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“We think the collapse of the price to get to the moon is going to enable a whole new market — kind of like the 4-minute-mile of space. (And) our ability to bring a sample back from the moon—we’ve always touted [that] as the Holy Grail of the company.”

What kind of resources would they be looking for? There’s the isotope helium-3, which was driven into the moon’s upper layer by solar wind. It may also have elements that are rare on Earth, like uranium and thorium, and other materials that us earthlings haven’t even begun to discover.

The other option involves elements in the valuable platinum group — the leftovers from metallic asteroids that have fallen to the moon’s surface over eons. Whatever is there, it may be a private enterprise that ultimately finds it — and the resources uncovered could be very lucrative.

All of these companies are racing each other thanks to the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million incentive to send a robotic spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2017. The first team there must move its craft 1,640 feet and beam a high-def video back to earth. The grand prize is $20 million, with two lesser prizes for runners up.

[Photos Courtesy NASA / Getty Images]