Quirks & Quarks

Canadian entrepreneur wants to send the first private lander to the moon

Moon Express might be the first private company to land on the moon - on their way to exploiting the valuable resources on the lunar surface.
Artist's impression of a Moon Express MX-9 lander on the lunar surface as its sample return capsule launches to return to Earth (Moon Express)

Canadian space entrepreneur Robert Richards has long dreamed of the moon. His company, Moon Express, might be closer than any other private enterprise to fulfilling that dream.

Working with investment from Silicon Valley capitalists, and with the cooperation of NASA, Moon Express has developed the first in what they hope will be a series of robotic moon landers. 

The first of these landers is called the MX-1. It would be carried into Earth orbit by a commercial space launch vehicle, and then make its own way from Earth orbit to the moon. The MX-1 is a relatively small lander, but later versions of the system that have been planned will be larger and capable of carrying payloads of up to 500 kilograms. The payloads could be rovers or samplers, supplied by NASA, academic research institutions or other private customers. According to Richards, some versions of the lander could also be capable of returning samples to the Earth.

Anybody wanting to go to the moon, we're happy to give them a ride.- Bob Richards
Artist's impression of a Moon Express MX-1 lander on the lunar surface (Moon Express)

Initially Moon Express expects their customers to be pursuing scientific studies. But if there's money to be made, they think it's more likely to be in the resources that may be available on the moon. This could include rare minerals, but Richards is also particularly interested in the signs of water that have been found, which he thinks could be mined as raw material for space-produced rocket fuel that doesn't have to be boosted out of the Earth's gravitational field.  

The water reserves on the moon are the real economic game changer, because the hydrogen and oxygen embedded in the water in the moon have the potential to be rocket fuel, and change the energy and the dynamics and the economics of utilizing not just the resources of the moon, but it could unlock the whole solar system for us.- Bob Richards

Richards is particularly proud of the fact that in 2016, Moon Express was the first private company to receive U.S. government approval for a commercial space mission to the moon under the requirements of the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty restricts territorial claims on the moon, but he thinks that this approval for his mission breaks new ground by setting the terms for potential economic activities in space.