Moon Express releases details of its lunar lander missions

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WASHINGTON — Moon Express, a company developing commercial lunar landers, said July 12 its first mission is still on schedule to launch by the end of this year in a bid to win the Google Lunar X Prize.

The Florida-based company used an event on Capitol Hill to unveil the design of that lander, known as MX-1E, as well as plans for future missions that include larger landers and sample return spacecraft.

That spacecraft, capable of placing up to 30 kilograms of payload onto the lunar surface, is the building block of a “flexible, scalable and innovative exploration architecture that can help us open the moon as a frontier for humanity,” said Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards.

Richards, standing next to a full-scale mockup of the MX-1E, said work on that initial spacecraft is going well. “We have flight hardware already,” he said, citing development of the lander’s engine, called PECO, that uses rocket-grade kerosene and high-test hydrogen peroxide propellants. Two of those engines have been built and will soon be undergoing tests.

Other components of the spacecraft are either undergoing testing — its laser altimeter, Richards said, is being tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center — or are being manufactured. That includes the main spacecraft bus, a carbon composite “unibody” design that includes both the spacecraft structure and propellant tanks. The company did not release photos or videos of that hardware.

Current plans call for integrating the spacecraft components by September at the company’s facility at the former Launch Complex 17/18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, then shipping the spacecraft to the New Zealand launch site of Rocket Lab, which will launch the spacecraft on its Electron rocket.

Richards admitted that the schedule was tight, both for spacecraft assembly and launch, in order to meet the deadline in the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize competition of launching by the end of the year. “We have a lot to do in a very short timeframe, and Rocket Lab has a lot to do in a very short timeframe,” he said.

That schedule is complicated by the fact that the Electron vehicle is still in development, having made its first, partially-successful launch May 25. The first stage of the rocket performed as planned, but the second stage failed to place a test payload into orbit. Rocket Lab has not released details about the flight, or announced when it will carry out its second of three planned test launches of the rocket.

There are several launches ahead of Moon Express on Rocket Lab’s manifest, Richards said, including a NASA mission under a Venture Class Launch Services contract awarded in 2015. “I would imagine there’s opportunity for shuffling” the order of those launches, he said. “The main thing is to get the vehicle operational now, then we can talk about when we can be on top of it.”

Richards said it would be disappointing if Moon Express did not launch before the prize deadline, but that the company wasn’t relying on the prize purse. “I really hope that we can be in a position to win it,” he said. “But from our business perspective, it’s not a dependency, and it never was. So we will be launching this mission as soon as we can.”

MX-1E Richards
Moon Express CEO Bob Richards speaks at a July 12 event in Washington alongside a full-scale model of the company’s MX-1E lander. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Future mission architecture

The initial MX-1E mission is the first in a series of missions in the planning stages by Moon Express, Richards said. A second mission, planned for launch in 2019, will attempt to land in the south polar regions of the moon, an area of considerable interest for both science and future human exploration given the presence of deposits of water ice in permanently-shadowed craters there.

The MX-1E is intended to be a building block for future larger landers. One design, the MX-2, would feature two MX-1E buses stacked on top of each other, with the capability for missions not just to the moon but also elsewhere in the inner solar system.

A larger lander, the MX-5, would use five MX-1E buses as engine pods to support a large lander platform capable of carrying 150 kilograms of payload to the lunar surface. An even larger spacecraft, the MX-9, would have nine engine pods and could carry out lunar sample return missions, using an MX-1E as the ascent vehicle.

Richards said that Moon Express could fly an MX-9 as soon as 2020 as a sample return mission, returning “tens of kilograms” of lunar samples. “We look forward opening up the opportunity for everyone to have lunar rocks,” he said, including for both scientific and commercial applications. “Only governments own moon rocks, and we want to change that.”

Richards said he hopes to have both commercial and government customers for the company’s missions, including tapping into what he sees as a renewed interest in lunar exploration by the Trump administration. “We want to time this with our customers in mind,” he said of the schedule of future missions, “particularly with NASA and what we see as the emerging American enthusiasm for returning to the surface of the moon. We believe we can play a big role in that.”

What that mix of customers will be, and when they will be ready to fly, is still uncertain, he acknowledged. “We’re predicting a market that doesn’t really yet exist,” he said. “We’re kind of skating towards where we believe the puck is going to be.”