For years, the only entities with the power and resources to visit the moon were governments, such as the United States, China and India. But that's all about to change: On Wednesday, a private spaceflight company announced it will be the first of its kind to conduct an independent moon landing.
The launch by Moon Express Inc., a Florida-based firm started in 2010, marks the first time a commercial entity will be granted permission to leave Earth's orbit for a destination in outer space. Moon Express — or MoonEx for short — plans to send a robotic lander to the moon, where it will drop scientific instruments that will help researchers study the mysteries of space. For example, the lander will be carrying several retroreflectors designed to reflect light back to earth; in the past, these devices have led to discoveries about relativity and quantum mechanics and in the future, could yield insights into dark matter, said MoonEx co-founder Bob Richards in an interview.
While on the moon, MoonEx's lander will also try to win a $20 million bounty being offered by Google as part of the Lunar XPRIZE competition. In order to win, a private entity must land on the moon, take off again, land more than 1,500 feet away from its original position, and send high-definition video and images back to earth.
Wednesday's announcement marks a turning point for the rapidly growing commercial space industry. Firms such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have pioneered private space launches in hopes of making it much cheaper to fling heavy payloads into orbit. But MoonEx said it is the first company to obtain clearance from the U.S. government to venture beyond.
MoonEx secured permission from the Federal Aviation Administration — which oversees space launches that don't involve NASA or the Pentagon — on July 20 after roughly three months of meetings with all three agencies, along with the White House, the State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Because no commercial application process yet exists for visiting the moon, MoonEx had to persuade the government to grant it special permission.
Promising to obey all the same space-related obligations governments must adhere to under international law, MoonEx also agreed to steer clear of any historical moon landing sites, such as the area where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. And MoonEx agreed not to interfere with any ongoing national or international space operations.
In another several years, the process that led to MoonEx's approval could be streamlined into a "one-stop shop" for businesses that want to visit the moon, said Richards.
"[You'll] walk up to an office to say, 'I'd like to go to the moon, please, or an asteroid,' and the clerk says, 'No problem — fill out this form,'" said Richards. "Right now, there's no form and there's no single authority in the federal government authorized to make such a decision."
When that process becomes more formalized, MoonEx aims to be far ahead of the competition, looking to make money carrying cargo to the moon and mining the lunar terrain for water and other resources. Then, said Richards, it'll turn those resources into fuel that can be sold to other explorers, granting humanity even cheaper access to other parts of space.
"Water is the oil of the solar system," said Richards. "It's a complete game-changer for the economics, because it makes the moon a gas station in the sky."