The US Government Is Preparing To Approve A Private Mission To The Moon

Artist's impression of the MX-1 lander. Moon Express

You might remember that we’ve reported on the Google Lunar XPRIZE before, a race between 16 private companies to land and drive an unmanned rover on the Moon. Well, it has been claimed that the US government is preparing to grant permission to one of the teams to perform the feat, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Now, if you’re confused, let’s explain. Technically, space belongs to no one. But, under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, any non-governmental entities that want to operate in space, including the Moon, must have authorization from their government.

So, for American team Moon Express, which is the team that is apparently on the cusp of receiving this authorization, this marks the clearing of a major hurdle. Moon Express is one of only two Google Lunar XPRIZE teams, the other being Israeli-based SpaceIL, that has a launch contract. The remaining 14 teams in the competition have until December 31, 2016, to come up with a launch contract in order to be eligible to take part in the competition. It’s not clear if Moon Express is the only team nearing government authorization, though.

“After months of lobbying by Moon Express officials and high-level deliberations among various federal agencies led by the White House science office… the company appears close to obtaining what it has called ‘mission approval,’” reported the WSJ. It continued that official authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulate US rocket launches, could come in the next few weeks or months.

The goal of the Lunar XPRIZE is to send a robotic probe, or rover, to travel 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the lunar surface, and the first company to do so will receive a prize of $20 million. Second place gets $5 million, and there are various other technical bonuses, such as traveling further.

Moon Express hopes to win by “hopping” their lander across the surface with thrusters. They have plans to launch with little-known Los Angeles company Rocket Labs USA in 2017, which has yet to actually fly a rocket. SpaceIL, meanwhile, has a contract to launch on the more firmly established SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, also in 2017. This means there is a slim possibility that the two teams will go head-to-head in the race to travel 500 meters across the surface of the Moon – but Moon Express may now have a slight edge.

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