British Company Announces Crowdfunded Lunar Mission

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WASHINGTON — Hoping to leverage what they believe to be increased public enthusiasm for science and space exploration, a British company announced plans Nov. 19 to raise nearly $1 million through crowdfunding to start work on a private lunar lander mission that will ultimately cost about $1 billion.

Lunar Missions Ltd. is seeking to raise 600,000 British pounds ($940,000) over the next month via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to support studies of Lunar Mission One, a lunar lander mission planned for 2024 with both science and public outreach goals. The campaign raised more than 75,000 British pounds in its first 12 hours.

As currently proposed, the one-ton Lunar Mission One spacecraft will land on the rim of the South Pole-Aitken Basin, the largest impact crater in the solar system. The spacecraft’s drill will collect rock samples from a depth of at least 20 meters, and potentially up to 100 meters, for analysis.

The spacecraft will also carry a “time capsule” that will later be buried in the hole created by the spacecraft’s drill. That time capsule will include a public archive of information about humanity, but the company also plans to sell space in the capsule to individuals who want to include photos, videos or other digital messages.

The company believes that those time capsule sales will provide the bulk of the funding for the mission. “We get members of the public to pay for the entire mission by giving them something that they want to buy,” said David Iron, founder of Lunar Missions Ltd., in a Nov. 17 interview. He said the company’s initial market research suggests there will be strong demand for access to the time capsule.

Iron said the company would also pursue corporate sponsorships for the mission, but did not expect that to be a significant source of revenue. Government agencies could also be a source of in-kind funding for the mission, he said, by supporting development of key mission technologies, such as the spacecraft’s drilling system.

The company hopes to take advantage of what it sees as a surge of public interest in space, triggered in part by the recent success of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet mission. “One thing that has been a big deal here is the Rosetta mission,” said Richard Holdaway, director of Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) Space, the mission’s technical adviser, in a Nov. 17 interview. “The public has really been captured by the science in a way most of us didn’t expect.”

The company plans to emphasize the mission’s science. “At the end of the day, this is primarily a science mission,” Holdaway said. By drilling into the South Pole-Aitken Basin, he said the spacecraft should be able to access rocks dating back to the origin of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

The Moon’s south pole has been of scientific interest for some time. The most recent planetary science decadal survey, prepared by the National Research Council for NASA in 2011, listed a sample-return mission to the South Pole-Aitken Basin as one of five high-priority medium-class missions that scientists recommended NASA should pursue through its New Frontiers Program.

Lunar Mission One will not return samples, but Iron said the spacecraft could have the ability to cache rock samples collected by its drill for return to Earth on a future mission.

Lunar Mission One is also one of the largest space-related crowdfunding initiatives to date. In 2013, Planetary Resources Inc. raised $1.5 million through Kickstarter to fund development of a space telescope. In June, the student-led Time Capsule to Mars project announced plans to raise most of its estimated $25 million cost through crowdfunding.

One risk Iron acknowledged is the all-or-nothing nature of the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform: The company will only receive money if it meets or exceeds its 600,000 British pound goal. However, Iron was not worried about falling just short of its goal and thus not receiving any money.

“It’s possible, but we don’t think it’s likely” that the company would just miss its fundraising goal, he said. “We think we will either fail completely or succeed completely.”