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US government poised to approve first private mission to the Moon

US government poised to approve first private mission to the Moon

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Moon Express/NASA

Private spaceflight company Moon Express will soon announce it has been granted regulatory approval by the US government to send a lunar lander to the surface of the Moon, according to a source familiar with the matter. If so, that means the company will be the first private company to have received permission from the government to send a vehicle beyond Earth orbit and on to another world.

Granting permission to send a vehicle beyond Earth orbit

Moon Express is a private spaceflight company with long-term hopes of mining the lunar surface. But in the short term, the company is focused on simply getting to the Moon first. The venture is developing the MX-1 — a 20-pound lunar lander designed to "hop" across the Moon’s surface. MX-1 is in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, an international contest to send the first privately funded spacecraft to the Moon. In order to win that competition, Moon Express has to get its lander to the surface of the Moon before December 31st, 2017.

The company has already booked a ride on an experimental rocket called the Electron, manufactured by startup Rocket Lab. But Moon Express still needs permission to go to the Moon — and that was turning into an issue for the company. Only state governments have ever traveled to the Moon or other planets. Currently, there’s no regulatory framework in place that allows the US government to oversee private missions beyond Earth orbit.

The US has to adhere to obligations set by the Outer Space Treaty

And that’s a problem, since the US has to adhere to obligations set by the Outer Space Treaty — an international agreement that guides how nations conduct missions in space. Specifically, the US has to adequately oversee private missions to other planetary bodies, as well as ensure that companies don’t violate planetary protection. But right now, there is no way for the government to make sure that private missions going beyond Earth orbit don’t violate these portions of the treaty.

So Moon Express came up with its own temporary solution. In April, the company announced that it had submitted a payload review to the Federal Aviation Administration, in which it disclosed how the MX-1 mission would comply with the Outer Space Treaty. That included giving the government certain "voluntary disclosures," detailing ways in which the mission adhered to the treaty. And Moon Express is expected to announce that its regulatory patch idea worked, according to the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

If so, the implications are huge. This would be the first company that’s ever been approved to go so far into space. The decision will likely form a precedent for any future companies that want to travel to deep space. SpaceX, which recently announced its intentions to go to Mars in 2018, will need similar approval.