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Moon Express will test out its lunar lander at historic Florida launch sites

Moon Express will test out its lunar lander at historic Florida launch sites

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NASA/George Shelton

Moon Express — a private spaceflight company that hopes to mine the Moon someday — will be testing out its future lunar spacecraft on Florida’s Space Coast over the next couple of years. The company is moving into Space Launch Complexes 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. That’s where it will be developing and flight testing its proposed lunar lander. Complex 17 was once used for Delta II launches, while early Viking and Thor rockets launched from Complex 18 in the 1950s, but both complexes have been dormant for years.

Moon Express is working on the MX-1 lander

Moon Express was originally supposed to work on its lander at Launch Complex 36A, a spaceport at the Cape that was once used by NASA and the Air Force to launch Atlas rockets. But the company agreed to move to make way for private company Blue Origin, which plans to launch orbital rockets from the facility over the next few years. With today’s announcement, Moon Express and the State of Florida plan to invest up to $3.8 million in Complexes 17 and 18 to refurbish the facilities. Moon Express claims that moving into the complexes will immediately create 25 to 50 jobs, as well as hundreds more over the next five years.

The lander that Moon Express is working on is the MX-1, which is about the size of a large coffee table, according to the company. The spacecraft is designed to ride to a high Earth orbit on the top of a commercial rocket and then travel the rest of the way to the Moon on its own. The MX-1 will land on the lunar surface vertically using its main kerosene engine, and once there, it can reignite its engine again to "hop" around the surface and explore different sites.

Moon Express has entered its lander in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, an international contest to send the first privately funded lander to the Moon. And so far, the company is a top contender in the race. It is currently one of only two teams in the competition to have secured a launch contract for its spacecraft. The company has purchased three flights on the experimental Electron rocket, a small launcher being built by spaceflight startup Rocket Lab. Those rockets will tentatively launch out of a New Zealand-based launch site that Rocket Lab is currently building. Though the Electron’s engines have been qualified for spaceflight, Rocket Lab has yet to launch the vehicle for the first time.

And there’s not a lot of time left if Moon Express hopes to win the X Prize competition. The teams have until December 31st, 2017 to get their landers to the Moon in order to win any prize money. The first team to get to the Moon and explore the lunar surface before the deadline will receive the top prize of $20 million.

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