A second team in the Google Lunar X Prize competition has secured a rocket to take its lunar lander into space. Moon Express — a California-based company that wants to eventually mine the Moon — will launch its MX-1E micro-lander on top of the new, experimental Electron rocket, manufactured by Los Angeles-based company Rocket Lab. The launch contract between the two companies was accepted by the X Prize Foundation, which oversees the race to land a privately funded rover on the Moon. The Electron rocket will launch the MX-1E lander either from the United States or from Rocket Lab's New Zealand spaceport sometime in 2017.
Moon Express is now one of only two teams in the X Prize competition to have secured a ride into space for its lunar lander; Israeli company SpaceIL was the first to have its launch contract accepted by the foundation in October. The team announced it will use one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets to carry its "Sparrow" lander into space.
SpaceIL was the first team to have its launch contract accepted
"At X Prize, we believe that the spirit of competition brings about breakthroughs that once seemed unimaginable or impossible, and so it thrills us to now have two Google Lunar X Prize teams with verified launch contracts attempting missions to the moon in 2017," Chanda Gonzales, senior director of the Google Lunar X Prize, said in a statement. "The new space race is truly on!"
The Google Lunar X Prize competition challenges private companies to build a spacecraft that can land on the Moon and then explore up to 1,640 feet of the lunar surface — all while sending back high-definition images and video to Earth. The vehicles must also be built almost entirely with private funding. But just making the lander isn't enough; the companies need to find a rocket that will take their hardware to the lunar surface. The remaining 14 teams in the competition have until the end of 2016 to secure a rocket contract like SpaceIL and Moon Express have done.
Then, all the competitors have until December 31st, 2017 to get their landers to the Moon. The first team to fulfill all these requirements will receive $20 million, while the second place team will get $5 million. Other cash prizes will be rewarded to teams that make other technical and scientific achievements, such as visiting an Apollo lander site.
Beyond the Lunar X Prize, the ultimate objective of Moon Express is to mine the lunar surface for resources like rare Earth metals or Helium-3. The company's MX-1 landers are the first step in attaining that goal. This family of spacecraft can supposedly reach the Moon from lower Earth orbit "at a fraction of the cost of conventional approaches," according to the company. To test out what the landers can do, Moon Express has actually booked three separate rides for the MX-1E vehicle on Rocket Lab's Electron rocket.
However, it doesn't seem as if Rocket Lab has sent its Electron rocket into space just yet. The company said its first test flight for the Electron would occur in 2015, and with the year almost over, there's been no word from Rocket Lab if that test flight actually occurred.