Moon Express and Rocket Lab team up for 2017 lunar mission

Moon Express has commissioned Rocket Lab for three lunar mission launchings(Credit: Moon Express)

Space startup Moon Express has signed a contract with Rocket Lab to help carry out three lunar missions starting in 2017. Described as the first private contract between two companies to carry out a lunar landing, the agreement will see Rocket Lab provide launch services using its Electron rocket system for the Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander as part of Moon Express's attempt win the Google Lunar Xprize.

The contract stipulates that Rocket Lab will provide services for two launches of the MX-1 lander in 2017 and a third at a date yet to be determined. These will be conducted from either Rocket Lab's New Zealand facilities or an American launch site. The Moon Express MX-1 lander is a scalable 600 kg (1,320 lb) spacecraft that can be sent to the Moon either directly or using low-energy trajectories. Its purpose is not only to conduct scientific missions, but also to deliver commercial payloads to the lunar surface at lower costs.

The original plan for the unmanned MX-1 was to send the lander into a geosynchronous transfer orbit as a piggyback payload with a communications satellite, but the September 30 signing with Rocket Lab gives Moon Express access to the New-Zealand-based company's new class of low-cost Electron launch vehicles. Based on new electric fuel pumps and composite construction, Rocket Lab hopes the new rockets will one day send 100 payloads a year into Earth orbit at US$4.9 million per launch.

A primary goal of the Moon landing will be to win the US$30 million Google Lunar Xprize, which aims at landing a privately-funded spacecraft on the Moon. To collect the prize, the craft will then travel 500 m (1,640 ft), collect high-definition video and images, then transmit them to Earth. Moon Express has already been given US $1 million by Google to fund a flight of a lander prototype.

"Moon Express is building disruptive technologies that will forever change the cost of access to space, including the asteroids and even the moons of Mars," says Moon Express Co-Founder and Chairman Naveen Jain. "We are now taking advantage of exponential technology like 3D printing and inexpensive sensors to collapse the capital needed to access the Moon. Coupling these technological advancements with today's news about the Rocket Lab launch contract is a huge step forward for us in opening whole new markets for space exploration."

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