For the first time ever, a private company has been given permission to land on the moon. The authorization from the US Government means next year's planned lunar mission by Moon Express will not only be the first by a private company, but the first time a private company will leave Earth's orbit.
Moon Express was founded in 2010 by entrepreneurs Dr. Bob Richards, Naveen Jain and Dr. Barney Pell. It is one of a number of commercial outfits seeking to begin operating in space (indeed, the news coincides with Virgin Galactic being awarded an operator license for its SpaceShipTwo) and is among those competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE.
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Up until now, all commercial space companies have been confined to operating within Earth's orbit and that has become commonplace, with the likes of SpaceX providing taxi services to and from the International Space Station. Moon Express says that this opportunity to fly beyond Earth's orbit, however, is the start of its long-term goal to explore and develop lunar resources.
"The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the US government and a pathfinder for private sector commercial missions beyond the Earth's orbit," says 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."
In unlocking the potential of the Moon's resources, Moon Express is hoping it can contribute to the advancement of technology, science, research and development. It is also planning to offer lunar transportation and other services for government and commercial customers, as well as to develop "commercial ventures that expand Earth's economic sphere." It plans to this using its own robotic spacecraft, which is designed to reduce the cost of space exploration.
"In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals, and Moon rocks back to Earth," explains Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain. "In 15 years, the Moon will be an important part of Earth's economy, and potentially our second home. Imagine that."
Securing authorization for its planned mission, however, was itself no mean feat, not least because no regulations yet exist under which such applications to be submitted. With the commercial space industry in an emergent state, the US Government is looking to put together the relevant legislation, but that was not set to be ready in time for the planned Moon Express mission.
Nonetheless, it is still necessary for the US to ensure that the payload being launched was in line with its national security and foreign policy interests, and that it complies with any international obligations to which the country is held. One such obligation is the the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which requires that state parties "authorize and continuously supervise" the activities of all space missions, including those of commercial nature, under their jurisdiction.
The US Government is therefore effectively responsible for the Moon Express mission and must have in place adequate means by which it can grant permission to and supervise the operations of the mission. This is said to be of particular importance while a payload is still within Earth's orbit and, therefore, at a risk of falling back to Earth unexpectedly.
In the absence of a formal procedure, the Moon Express application, which was submitted to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on April 8th, is instead said to have been subject to "exhaustive interagency consultations and deliberations" among the FAA itself, the State Department, NASA and the White House, as well as other federal agencies.
Subsequent to that process and with agreement from all of the relevant agencies, authorization for the mission was awarded on July 20th.
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