The private race to the moon just kicked up a notch with Moon Express revealing in detail its plan to begin commercially harvesting moon rocks by 2020. The company is set to become the first commercial presence on the Moon sending back lunar samples as well as establishing a permanent lunar research outpost.

Moon Express is racing along as a major contender in Google's Lunar Xprize, a competition that will award US$20 million to the first privately-funded company to land a spacecraft on the Moon. One of the primary benchmarks to win the Xprize competition is thatany contender must launch their expedition before the end of 2017.

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The company has outlined three expeditions that will roll out over the next few years starting with "Lunar Scout" at the end of 2017. This first expedition will demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of the approach, and carry several payloads to the lunar surface including the International Lunar Observatory and several scientific instruments as part of a research project called "MoonLight".

The second expedition, to be launched in 2018, is set to explore the Moon's South Pole. A lunar research outpost will be established to prospect for water and useful materials.

The third expedition is the big one. Dubbed "Harvest Moon", this will begin the company's business phase of what they are calling "lunar resource prospecting". This mission will include the delivery back to Earth of the first commercially-obtained moon samples.

Moon Express also revealed more detail on the crafts that have been developed to achieve these lofty goals. The MX-1 is proposed as the initial spacecraft to embark on the first expedition. Referred to as similar in size and shape to the Star Wars R2-D2 droid, the craft function like building blocks and can be reconfigured to expand overall payload.

The MX-5 is described as the "lunar workhorse" and can be fitted with a variety of configurations incorporating MX-1 systems. The MX-9, lined up for the 2020 expedition, is the most comprehensive craft of the collection. Able to support lunar sample return operations this craft is being called "solar system conquering".

Moon Express is certainly proposing an ambitious timeline but it could very well deliver on its bold promises. In 2016 it became the first private company to receive US government approval to land on the moon. This landmark decision opened the door to what President Trump has subsequently called "the large-scale economic development of space."

With a variety of private companies exploring off-Earth possibilities the commercial exploitation of lunar resources is becoming a real prospect. A new space race is heating up and this time it is coming from the private sector.

Take a look at the lunar rock prospecting process in the video below.

Source: Moon Express

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