Moon Express, a private company co-founded and funded by billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, has been approved for a mission to the moon. For the first in history, the U.S. government will allow a commercial venture to travel and explore beyond Earth's orbit.
By next year, California-based Moon Express hopes to fly a commercial mission to the lunar surface and look for valuable resources that could be utilized on our planet. The moon is filled with large amounts of iron ore, water, and other precious metals believed to be worth trillions of dollars. Carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium-3 can also be found in abundance.
"This is not only a milestone, but really a threshold for the entire commercial space industry," Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards told Space.com.
According to Richards, the process to get government approval took some time, since no one really knew how to address it. In April, Moon Express filed an application with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and then it slowly made its way to other federal departments, including NASA and the Department of Defense, before everything was eventually worked out.
Moon Express has a lot to gain if the expedition succeeds. The company will be awarded $20 million as part of Google's Lunar XPrize competition once a commercial vehicle lands, moves 1,640 feet across the moon, and manages to send high-definition pictures and video back to Earth.
The second team to achieve the goal will receive $5 million. Currently, there are 16 other teams vying for the prize.
"We're still shooting for the end of 2017," Richards said of the maiden MX-1 moon mission. "A lot has to go right, but at least we have a shot at our moon shot, given this regulatory approval."
Planning to take off next year, Moon Express will be carrying six payloads for several customers, which includes Google Lunar X Prize, the International Lunar Observatory, Celestis, the University of Maryland, and the National Laboratories of Frascati, Italy. The spacecraft will be equipped with a "mooncam" to provide views of the lunar surface. Google intends to broadcast the moon images through YouTube.
NASA will also send at least one payload on the Moon Express mission. Dr. Christopher McKay, a NASA Ames Center astrobiologist, will be sending an incubated mustard seed to study how plants could be cultivated in the moon's low gravity and high radiation environment.
Moon Express will be carrying reflectors from the University of Maryland. Dubbed "Moonlight," they will provide better measurements of the distance between the Earth and the moon. The equipment catches laser pulses sent from telescopes on our planet, helping scientists test various gravity theories.
"Space travel is our only path forward to ensure our survival and create a limitless future for our children," Jain said in a recent statement. "In 15 years, the moon will be an important part of Earth's economy, and potentially our second home."
Moon Express will have the option of blasting off from one of two launch sites, Space Launch Complex 17 and 18 in Cape Canaveral, or a site owned by Rocket Lab in New Zealand. Most likely, the New Zealand site will be chosen for the first mission, according to Richards.
If everything goes as planned for Moon Express, it could be huge business opportunity for Naveen Jain as well as other capitalists hoping to commercialize the moon. With so many recent technological advancements making moon trips economically possible, the positive exploitation of the "eighth continent" could make a significant impact on space exploration as well as improving the lives of humans here on Earth.
[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]