X Prize Hopeful Moon Express Seeks Riches in Lunar Regolith

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SAN FRANCISCO — After deflecting questions for months, members of the Google Lunar X Prize team Moon Express Inc. are beginning to reveal the broad outlines of a business plan that includes financial backing from Internet entrepreneurs and a focus on lunar mining.

Moon Express, one of three teams selected in January to supply NASA with data related to its planned Moon expedition, revealed plans in October to compete for $30 million in awards as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a race to send the first commercial vehicle to the Moon. Since then, team members have been reluctant to discuss the project and the company’s Internet presence was limited to a single paragraph that mentioned “experienced people” and “financial resources” without offering any details.

Those details are beginning to emerge, however, including the Moon Express co-founders: Naveen Jain, who also founded Internet search firms InfoSpace and Intelius; Barney Pell, an entrepreneur who worked for NASA before becoming chief architect for Microsoft Corp.’s Bing Local Search; and Bob Richards, co-founder of the International Space University and former chief executive of Odyssey Moon, another Google Lunar X Prize competitor. In the new company, Jain will act as chairman, Pell will serve as vice chairman and chief technology officer, and Richards will be the chief executive, according to an April 4 announcement.

“Getting Silicon Valley excited about an exploration mission reaching out to the moon and beyond is a great opportunity for commercial space,” Richards said.

The Moon Express team conducted its first test flight April 9 of a miniature radar designed to assist the firm’s lunar lander in touching down. The radar, being developed by Moon Express with technical support from Tomas Svitek, president of Stellar Exploration Inc., was bolted to the outside of an airship and tested during a flight from Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif., to Los Angeles. Moon Express chartered the airship owned by Airship Ventures, a company founded in 2007 to offer sight-seeing trips throughout California. Stellar Exploration of San Luis Obispo, Calif., developed a previous version of the miniature radar under a Small Business Innovative Research contract with the NASA Ames Research Center of Mountain View.

Although Moon Express officials declined to offer a detailed timeline for lunar expeditions, Richards said the team hopes to send a spacecraft to the Moon “possibly in 2013, but more likely in 2014” to win the Google Lunar X Prize. While winning that prize is not the primary goal of the Moon Express creators, it is “the golden ring,” he added.

The Google Lunar X Prize offers a $20 million award for the first commercial firm to reach the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters and send high-definition imagery to Earth. The grand prize is scheduled to decrease to $15 million after any government-funded mission explores the lunar surface. The X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif., also plans to award $5 million to the second-place team as well as $4 million in bonus prizes for completing a variety of objectives including nighttime operations, traveling more than 5 kilometers on the lunar surface, detecting water and landing near an Apollo site. Any prizes left unclaimed expire at the end of 2015, according to the X Prize website.

In addition to seeking X Prize money, the Moon Express team is “investigating the compelling possibility of developing lunar resources,” Richards said. Recent NASA missions, including the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, revealed the presence of volatile organic compounds including methane, ammonia, hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Those compounds could be used to support lunar bases or to facilitate future exploration beyond the Moon, NASA officials said.

The Moon Express team, however, is more interested in discovering resources that offer near-term economic benefit such as platinum group metals, Richards said. Due to their unique catalytic and corrosion-resistant properties, platinum group metals have many industrial applications and are a key element of emerging fuel cell technologies.

Moon Express officials plan to use the lander’s miniature radar to survey the lunar surface and search for metals left there by asteroid bombardment. Three out of every 100 lunar craters were created by the impact of metallic asteroids, said Dennis Wingo, author of “Moonrush: Improving Life on Earth with the Moon’s Resources” and leader of the Moon Express team’s effort to analyze the data gathered by lunar missions. As a result, lunar samples obtained during the Apollo missions show that the lunar regolith has a dispersed, fine metallic powder, said Wingo, who is also the president of Skycorp. Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.

While that metallic powder has value, “what we really want to find is big chunks,” Wingo said. To find those chunks, Wingo is analyzing data from lunar missions including Apollo, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2009 and the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, a NASA instrument that traveled into lunar orbit in 2008 on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft.

Carle Pieters, a professor of Planetary Geosciences at Brown University in Rhode Island, and principal investigator for NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, said that while mineral resources are plentiful on the Moon, little is yet known about their concentration. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper has detected many radioactive elements as well as iron-bearing minerals including pyroxene and olivine, Pieters said.

In January, NASA announced plans to buy data from three teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize: Moon Express, Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh and Dynetics Inc. of Huntsville. The contracts awarded under the space agency’s Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data project provide each team with $500,000 for data related to lunar vehicle testing. They also enable the firms to compete for approximately $30 million in NASA lunar data contracts during the next five years.

 

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