Today, private spaceflight company Moon Express unveiled its grand plans to build a robotic outpost on the South Pole of the Moon as early as 2020. To do this, the Florida-based company wants to create a new class of spacecraft, called the MX Robotic Explorers, to land and deliver payloads to the lunar surface. The ultimate goal is to have permanent robots on the Moon that can mine the pole for water and minerals — resources that can then be sold for profit.
Moon Express has long been vocal about its desire to mine the Moon, but this is the first time the company has detailed exactly how. Its plans start with the MX-1E robotic lander, a vehicle the company is currently working on. Roughly as tall as a person, the MX-1E can land up to 66 pounds on the lunar surface and is also designed to “hop” across the Moon once it lands. The company hopes to fly the vehicle out of New Zealand on top of an experimental rocket called the Electron, manufactured by aerospace startup Rocket Lab. The MX-1E is Moon Express’ entry into the Google Lunar X Prize, an international competition to send the first private robotic spacecraft to the surface of the Moon.
After the MX-1E, Moon Express plans to scale up: the company wants to build three different vehicles over the next few years — the MX-2, the MX-5, and the MX-9. They will all be powered by a new “eco-friendly” engine Moon Express is building called the PECO. Each of these spacecraft can carry various sizes of payloads, and they can be used as landers, orbiters around the Moon, or deep-space probes that go elsewhere in the Solar System. The MX-9 can even carry one of the smaller robotic vehicles, such as the MX-1E, to the surface of the Moon. Once it lands, the MX-1E can then launch from the surface and return materials to Earth, if needed. And the new vehicles can ride on any rocket that’s available. “Our MX family are vehicle agnostic,” Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, said in a presentation today. “We look at rockets as a commodity.”
All these robots could be used to possibly extract the water-ice at the lunar South Pole, which could then be used to make propellant for spacecraft. The other idea is to harvest Moon rocks and minerals, which Moon Express could then sell to researchers at NASA or other interested buyers. The company does not have details about the technology needed to actually mine these materials, however.
Before any mining can happen, the MX-1E needs to be completed, too. And Moon Express has yet to show off actual hardware for the lander. Richards says that several components for the MX-1E are still being tested at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and he is confident the company will be able to launch before the end of 2017. In order to win the Google Lunar X Prize, Moon Express has to launch before the end of the year. The MX-1E also has to travel up to 500 meters on the lunar surface once it lands, as well as send photos and videos from the Moon to Earth. If Moon Express is the first competitor to do this before the deadline, then the company will win a grand prize purse of $20 million.
Rocket Lab also has to further test the Electron — the ride for the MX-1E. The rocket has only flown once during a test flight, and while it made it to space, it didn’t reach orbit. Rocket Lab says it knows what the problem was and hopes to fly two more tests this year. Richards is hopeful the Electron will be operational soon. “We are eagerly watching the developments of Rocket Lab,” he says. “We’re thrilled with the level of success of the first test launch.”
Moon Express does have coveted regulatory approval from the US government to fly the Google Lunar X Prize mission, which the company calls the Lunar Scout expedition. Once that happens, it’s time to start building the lunar outpost. In the next few years, Moon Express will likely send its MX-2 vehicle to the Moon’s South Pole to prospect for water and establish the company’s presence. That mission will carry numerous research experiments as well. After that comes the Harvest Moon mission, which will return a sample from the Moon to the surface of Earth — something Moon Express has been eyeing all these years. The company hopes to launch that mission by 2020.