Federal regulators have given private space company Moon Express permission to send a lunar lander to the moon in 2017.
Moon Express needs to get to the moon by 2017 to meet a deadline for a Google Lunar X Prize, valued at $20 million. The prize requires a private company to land “a robot on the surface of the Moon, traveling 500 meters over the lunar surface, and sending images and data back to the Earth.”
Moon Express joined the contest in 2012 and is one of only two teams to have secured a rocket launch contract for its lander. The company intends to bring rocks from the moon to Earth by 2020.
“Even though we are a proud contender [in the X Prize competition], it’s neither a cornerstone of creating the business nor do we need to win it,” Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, told The Verge. “But we want to win it.”
Moon Express’ plans were hampered with hesitance from the Obama administration. The State Department attempted to stop Moon Express from sending the robot in order to enforce a treaty originally signed in 1967 with the Soviet Union. Moon Express was forced to get a regulatory “patch” and allow the government to directly oversee the flight.
“The great news was there is a regulatory process in the works,” Richards said. “The bad news is we had zero confidence that the regulatory framework would be ready in time for our mission in 2017. Ironically you had a great ‘space resources’ act that says you can own what you get, but we’re in a situation where you can’t launch to go get it.”
This is the first time the government has granted regulatory approval for a private space mission beyond Earth orbit. The private company SpaceX has announced its plans to send spacecraft to Mars in 2018 and Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch space hotels by 2020.
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