Earlier this week, I accidentally stumbled into the wrong part of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Inside an enormous, empty event space, a small group of young engineers tinkered with a futuristic machine that looked to be part hovercraft, part Mars rover. When asked what they were working on—just a stone’s throw from ringing slot machines and filthy nightclubs, mind you—one team member indicated that it was a lunar lander. Pardon?
"Well, like, it goes to the moon," he explained matter-of-factly.
Today, Moon Express, the startup behind the project, unveiled the MX-1, its first spacecraft that’s designed to do exactly as the engineer described—to land on the surface of the moon. The privately held company, which is backed by billionaire Naveen Jain and is competing for Google’s Lunar X Prize, which is offering prize money to the first craft that can get to the moon, move 500 meters, and send back two broadcasts. The company is in Las Vegas for Autodesk’s University conference, where it plans to unveil the MX-1, which is in on track not only to deliver payloads to the moon by 2015, but potentially return to Earth with treasures of its own. "One of the Holy Grails is to prove that we can bring something back," says Moon Express CEO Bob Richards.
The MX-1 doesn’t look like the spacecraft you’ve likely seen in NASA footage or science-fiction movies. For one, it’s smaller than you’d expect, and could "fit basically inside of an SUV" trunk, says Richards. It’s an unmanned, solar-powered craft, which uses hydrogen peroxide as rocket fuel. The fuel tanks are strapped to the vehicle’s underside, and actually serve two purposes. "When the tanks are empty, they now act as a bumper," Richards explains. "People are used to seeing landing gear on a spacecraft, but we didn’t need landing gear—the fuel tanks are the structure. It looks like something you’d land on a beach actually."
To get to space, the craft is launched via rocket. From there, it can navigate all by itself to the moon. The MX-1 is capable of carrying roughly 60 kilograms of payload—Richards calls it a "FedEx to the moon." (The company is even referred to as MoonEx.) For its early missions, the startup plans to deliver plants to the moon on behalf of NASA, including basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis, a sort of mustard-seed plant. Additionally, the MX-1 will carry a small, black-and-gold telescope for a private company, which plans to set up the device as a moon cam on its surface, streaming live video back to Earth for all to watch.
But longer term, the aim of MoonEx is far more entrepreneurial. It plans to mine resources from the moon, seeing it as an untapped and very lucrative target. "What’s there? Probably more platinum than there is in all the reserves on Earth," Richards says. "Pick your spice: silver, nickel, everything that we mine here on Earth is on the moon." The trick will be developing the MX-1 into a craft that can deliver payloads to-and-from the moon, at larger scales.
Moon Express, however doesn’t expect to return with any payloads until at least its third mission. It plans to launch its first mission to the moon in 2015.