Moon Express-built Telescope To Provide Lunar Perspective of Earth

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SAN FRANCISCO — On May 25, the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) released the first images of the flight test version of a 7-centimeter optical telescope it plans to send to the Moon in 2015 to give researchers, educators and the general public an opportunity to view Earth and space from a unique vantage point.

The flight test instrument, known as the International Lunar Observatory-precursor, was built by Moon Express Inc. and delivered to ILOA in March. Once extensive testing is completed, Moon Express plans to build the flight instrument and carry it to the Moon in 2015, said Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and chief executive. Moon Express has not made any announcement concerning the launch vehicle it plans to use for its 2015 mission, except to say that it would travel on a commercially available rocket. Richards declined to comment on the type of rocket the firm is seeking and whether Moon Express plans to send its cargo as a launch vehicle’s primary or secondary payload. Moon Express plans to announce its launch vehicle plans later this year, Richards said.

In the meantime, ILOA planned to display the flight test version of the International Lunar Observatory-precursor publicly for the first time June 1 during Singularity University’s Backstage Pass to the Future event at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. 

The International Lunar Observatory-precursor is expected to weigh approximately 2 kilograms and provide imagery of objects inside and outside the Milky Way Galaxy. The telescope features extensive software to allow researchers around the world to focus on objects of interest and obtain imagery through an Internet portal, ILOA Director Steve Durst said. 

“When you look at the telescope, you see impressive hardware, much of it already flight qualified,” Richards said. “What you do not see is every manner of software to operate the telescope including user-friendly Internet access.”

The telescope is smaller than ILOA planned originally. “We’ve applied some very innovative optics and avionics to reduce the size and mass of the telescope,” Richards said. The telescope’s primary optic will have a diameter of approximately 7 centimeters with an 18-centimeter focal plane and a 13-centimeter aperture, according to the specifications published May 28. 

The telescope’s potential applications include obtaining imagery of asteroids that pose a danger to Earth and identifying planetary resources, according to a statement released May 28. During the last year, Planetary Resources Inc. of Seattle and Deep Space Industries of Santa Monica, Calif., have revealed plans to mine asteroids for platinum group metals and other valuable resources. 

Moon Express, headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Park, Mountain View, Calif., also plans to mine the Moon’s resources. First, however, the company is seeking to establish reliable delivery service. 

The company’s 2015 flight to the Moon, which is designed to capture first place in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, is likely to be the first of many, Richards said. Moon Express plans to conduct additional flights, ferrying cargo to the Moon for governments, research institutions, corporations and individuals. 

During those trips, Moon Express will use instruments to identify valuable materials left on the lunar surface by asteroids. That information, in turn, will help the company raise money to mine those resources, Richards said.  

Moon Express is backed by wealthy Internet entrepreneurs. Naveen Jain, who previously founded Internet search firms InfoSpace and Intelius, is the firm’s chairman. Barney Pell, the former chief architect for Microsoft Corp.’s Bing Local Search, is the vice chairman. Jain, Pell and Richards co-founded Moon Express in 2010. 

In addition to funding from its founders, Moon Express raises money in Silicon Valley through a venture capital model in which investors give money to early stage, high-risk startups during successive rounds of financing in exchange for equity in the business. Since 2010, Moon Express has raised approximately $10 million, public records show. “We’ve enjoyed success with all our funding rounds to date,” Richards said. 

ILOA has raised a portion of the money it needs to conduct the International Lunar Observatory-precursor mission, Durst said by email. He declined to comment on the anticipated cost of the mission or the amount of money raised to date. ILOA plans to identify additional sources of revenue for all of its projects including a planned human mission to the Moon through a series of workshops it plans to hold around the world called ILOA Galaxy Forum program for 21st Century Education, Exploration and Enterprise, Durst said.

The International Lunar Observatory-precursor mission is designed to address some of the technical challenges of another planned ILOA project, International Lunar Observatory-1, a 2-meter dish observatory the organization plans to establish near the Moon’s South Pole.  The International Lunar Observatory-precursor and International Lunar Observatory-1 are important because they will serve as a toehold for future construction of a lunar base as well as future solar system development, Durst said. 

Canada’s MDA Corp. has performed work on the design of the scientific payload for the International Lunar Observatory-1. ILOA of Kamuela, Hawaii, also hopes to hire MDA to build the fight instrument, Durst said.