The Federal Aviation Administration just gave permission to a private organization to land next year on the Moon, something the NASA has not done in over forty years.
The small start-up, Moon Express, Inc. (MoonEx), founded in 2010, wants to win the Google Lunar X Prize, and earn the twenty million dollar reward, alongside the recognition of being the first privately owned business to reach earth’s satellite. But Moon Express has another motive for landing on the moon –which is supposed to occur next year-: economic interests that take the form of lunar metals and elements, such as platinum and helium-3.
According to the company’s founder and CEO, Bon Richards, “the recent discovery of water on the moon is an economic game changer for humanity’s future. Water is the oil of the solar system, and the moon has become a gas station in the sky.”
The approval is being deemed as an effort to promote space endeavors, which has not been encouraged since the US won the Space Race against the URSS.
MoonEx almost got its request denied, since the State Department did not trust the company would keep its word and stay within the Outer Space Treaty boundaries. In the company’s payload review (a necessary step for being granted approval) more information than was needed was submitted.
In the document, MoonEx swore to comply with the treaty, stating the Federal Aviation Administration would be continually supervising the company’s work and landing project so that it can oversee it. The State Department, the White House, and Federal Aviation Administration reunited and decided that the payload and all the voluntarily shared information was more than enough to grant approval.
The Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) is a space competition awarded by the X Prizes and sponsored by Google and aimed at private companies. The objective is to “land a privately funded rover on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high definition video and images”.
The competition was announced on 2007, and its deadline, originally at the end of 2012, has been extended several times, and as of now is in December 2017. The winner will obtain $20 million and the second place US$5 million, with US$4 million regarding ‘technical bonuses’-
The X Prize Foundation was created in 1995 by Peter H. Diamandis, with the idea of promoting technological development that was beneficial for humanity. The idea is to recreate the prizes of the early 20th century that led to breakthroughs in technology like Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.
However, if MoonEx intends to land on the moon next year, it needs to step up its game. The company still has to assemble their final rover, test it, and decide on a landing site.
In 1967, over one hundred nations, including the US, signed the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is the base for international space law.
To be grant approval from the Federal Government, MoonEx had to certify it would abide by the treaty, for example, not contaminating the Moon, or disturbing the Apollo land site.
In this treaty it is clearly stated that no government can claim sovereignty over the Moon, however, since Moon Express is a privately owned company, it might be granted permission to mine in the satellite’s surface.
In November 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R. 2262), which gives the opportunity to American private companies to maintain property rights of space resources.
“We’re trying to define them in ways that will encourage private investment and private opportunities but not violate any international agreements,” said Henry R. Hertzfeld, a professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University.
In the beginning, twenty-nine companies signed up for the competition. However, only sixteen remain, apart from MoonEx, including Independence-X from Malaysia, Hakuto from Japan, Space Metal from Brazil, Angelicvm from Chile and SpaceIL from Israel.
The latter is the only one that alongside MoonEx has managed to secure a launch contract for their rover and is its most significant competitor. SpaceIL wants to build the lightest and smallest vehicle of the competition, and also the unique. Instead of rolling the required 500 meters, the company wants to use rocket propulsion to make the rover ‘hop.’
The company is being supported by SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and, in contrast with MoonEx is a non-profit organization, only wishing to promote education. This is why, if they win, the group will donate the money to educational and research centers.
Source: The New York Times