A Cape Canaveral, Florida-based start-up has become the first private company approved by the US government to land on the Moon with less than 17 months remaining in the Google Lunar X Prize Foundation.
The approval means Moon Express can proceed with plans to launch an unmanned lunar lander from Cape Canaveral by 31 December 2017, the deadline to claim one of the two prizes in the $30 million competition.
Moon Express remains in a tight race with Israeli start-up SpaceIL to win the $25 million prize for completing the first landing or a $5 million award for making the second landing by a private company on the lunar surface. The governments of the USA, Russia and China also have landed manned or unmanned missions on Earth’s only satellite.
“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth's eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth's economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” says Bob Richards, a co-founder and chief executive of Moon Express.
Moon Express has signed contracts with Rocket Lab to supply both the Electron rockets to perform the launch and the MX-1E micro-lander to descend onto Mars.
SpaceIL, meanwhile, is also pushing to complete by the second half of 2017 the first Moon landing by a private company. The Israeli start-up has contracted Spaceflight Industries to perform the launch using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Upon release from the launch, a spacecraft will jettison a capsule to land on the Moon.
The Lunar X Prize requires teams to land on the Moon with a payload that can travel up to 500m (1,640ft) and transmit images and video to Earth.