For the first time ever, the Federal Aviation Administration has given a private company permission to land a robotic craft on the moon.
The FAA on Wednesday gave Moon Express Inc., headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley, clearance to send a lightweight spacecraft to the lunar surface late next year.
The decision comes as private companies are taking on greater roles in the exploration of space. For example, SpaceX, a company based in Hawthorne, Calif., now regularly launches commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station.
And NASA is encouraging private industry to submit ideas on ways to increase commercial activities within the space station. The industry comment period has been extended through Aug. 12.
“The FAA has determined that the launch of the (Mission Express) payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests or international obligations of the United States,” the agency said in a statement.
The FAA concluded that the company’s MX-1E spacecraft would be capable of traveling from Earth orbit to the lunar surface, making a soft landing and then performing propulsive “hops” around its landing area.
Moon Express has also expressed hopes of winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which will award $30 million to the first team of entrepreneurs that successfully lands a rover on the moon, makes it travel 500 meters – just under 1/3 of a mile – and beams high-definition video of the feat back to Earth.
Chris Impey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, told AMI Newswire that future revenue projections for private space ventures are robust. In about five years, the revenues accumulated by private space firms will dwarf the NASA budget, putting the private sector on a path to becoming the dominant force in space exploration, Impey said.
“There’s a burgeoning private sector, and it’s going to have its own life, and it’s going to be big,” he said.
The Google prize has already spurred an enormous amount of thought and innovation, Impey said. Today the unit cost of launching a single cubesat – a miniaturize satellite weighing no more than three pounds – is below $10,000, which is within reach of many entrepreneurs.
Although he views the Mission Express mission as positive, Impey cautioned there are downsides to the increased privatization of space, including more unseemly activities, such as sex hotels in zero gravity and giant advertising gimmicks placed in Earth orbit. So the quest for the bottom line might produce some garish diversions.
“It’s the Wild West out there,” he said, noting that there are no agreements among nations on ownership issues pertaining to other celestial bodies.
According to CNN Money, the maiden Moon Express mission to the lunar surface will include setting up a telescope and delivering the ashes of people who wanted to be buried on the moon. The first craft will not return to Earth, but future missions will be designed to pack up moon minerals for return trips.
Company CEO Bob Richards said in a prepared statement: “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 for all humanity.”
Moon Express managers say rare earth metals, as well as platinum, may be abundant on the moon and available for industry to extract. In addition, helium-3, which could fuel nuclear fusion power plants, can be found in large quantities on the moon.
The company reported that the FAA gave it the green light for the moon mission after consultations with the State Department, NASA and the White House.
The 1996 Outer Space Treaty ratified by the United Nations General Assembly requires nations to supervise nongovernmental entities involved in space exploration. According to the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, the treaty forbids the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on other celestial bodies and calls on missions to the moon and other worlds to be guided by peaceful purposes.
In its statement this week, the FAA emphasized that the go-ahead given to Moon Express does not extend to the company’s future missions in space. The agency said it will work with commercial space companies on what it calls nontraditional space missions on a case-by-case basis.
Moon Express has a launch contract with Rocket Lab USA, a rocket systems developer specializing in putting small payloads into space. The maiden mission is projected to cost under $10 million, thanks to advanced technologies and lightweight components.
“Small teams can now do what only superpowers could do before,” Richards said.