Moon Express Developing ‘Micro Lunar Lander’

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Moon Express, the startup company that is among the leading teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, is working on a new lander concept that is smaller than its original design to capture the $20 million prize, the company’s president and chief executive said last week.

Speaking at a luncheon Saturday during the NewSpace 2013 conference in San Jose, Calif., Bob Richards said technological advances in the last three years have helped reduce the size and the cost of the lander. 

“We believe we can deliver a spacecraft to the surface of the Moon for under $50 million,” or half the company’s original estimates, Richards said.

The company, he said, has brought a lot of technological development in house that it originally outsourced, following the model of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. That includes opening a new propulsion facility in Huntsville, Ala., led by Tim Pickens, who has previously been involved with another Lunar X Prize team, Rocket City Space Pioneers, before that team was acquired by Moon Express late last year. Pickens is working on a series of small rocket engines that use hydrogen peroxide propellant to support the lander project.

That and other technological advances have allowed the company to scale down the lander to about half the size of its previous design, based on NASA’s Common Spacecraft Bus developed for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer lunar orbiter mission. The spacecraft, Richards said, would be able to go directly from geostationary transfer orbit — hitching a ride, most likely, as a secondary payload on a commercial communications satellite launch — to the surface of the Moon using on-board propulsion.

“It is so much more powerful, and so much cooler in its integration of technology, that I think it will be a revolutionary new lander system,” Richards said of this “micro lunar lander” design. 

He did not go into much additional technical detail, citing a request for information released by NASA earlier in the month for commercial lunar lander concepts, which could be the basis for a future public-private partnership for a lander. Richards said a formal unveiling of the new lander design would take place later this year, after the request for information closes.