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Moon Express, one of the five finalists trying to win the Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) before it expires at the end of this year, announced today its long range plans, focused on building low cost lunar landers rovers, and sample return missions that could be purchased and launched for a tenth the cost of a typical government mission.
The GLXP mission won’t be the last lunar voyage for Moon Express, if all goes according to plan. Its deal with Rocket Lab covers up to five launches, and Moon Express wants at least two more to occur in the next few years, Richards revealed during a news conference today.
The first post-GLXP mission, scheduled to launch in 2019, will set up a robotic research outpost near the lunar south pole and prospect for water and other resources. Then, in 2020, Moon Express will launch the first commercial lunar sample-return mission. That effort, Richards said, should prove out the company’s technologies and its business model, which is centered around creating low-cost access to the moon’s surface for a variety of customers. The core piece of hardware to make all of that happen is a single-engine lander called the MX-1, which will launch on the GLXP flight. Moon Express aims to mass-produce the MX-1, sell it as a stand-alone lunar explorer and have it serve as a building block for three larger, more capable spacecraft — the MX-2, the MX-5 and the MX-9, Richards said today.
The MX-2 combines two MX-1s into a single package, boosting the MX-1’s payload capacity in Earth-moon space and potentially enabling missions to Venus or the moons of Mars. As their names suggest, the MX-5 and MX-9 incorporate five engines and nine engines, respectively, and broaden the exploration envelope even further, Richards said. All of these spacecraft will be available in orbiter, lander and deep-space variations, and the MX-5 and MX-9 vehicles will also come in a sample-return configuration.
Moon Express has not revealed how much it will charge for any of these spacecraft. However, company representatives have said that, together, the MX-1 and Electron can deliver a lunar mission for less than $10 million (that’s “cost,” not retail). Electron flights currently sell for about $5.5 million apiece, putting the lander’s raw cost at $4.5 million or less.
Essentially, they are taking the revolution in satellite technology that is making everything smaller and cheaper and applying it to planetary exploration. They are then offering this technology as a very cheap and fast option for scientists and governments. Based on these numbers, a mission to the Moon could cost a customer less than $20 million, which is nothing compared to a typical NASA mission. Even India’s Mars Orbiter was several times more expensive than this.
While I consider NASA’s planetary program second to none, and one of the best things it does, Moon Express is demonstrating, as has SpaceX with launch services, that private enterprise, if given the chance, can do it better.