Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Moon Express & Rocket Lab Partner on Google Lunar X-Prize

          By Brian Orlotti

On October 1st, Moon Express, a California-based firm competing for the $30Mln USD ($39.3Mln CDN) Google Lunar X-Prize, announced that it has signed a contract with startup Rocket Lab Inc. for five launches on its innovative new Electron rocket, with the first launch scheduled for 2017.

December 2013 Moon Express info-graphic showing the various missions of the MX-1.  As outlined in the DEcember 8th, 2013 Gizmag article, "Moon Express reveals design for its MX-1 lunar lander," three-quarters of the (600 kg /1,320 lb) launch mass of the MX-1 will be fuel for its main rocket engine, in order to propel the spacecraft toward the Moon, and then soft land on the lunar surface. Graphic c/o Moon Express.

The deal is a milestone for the NewSpace industry, bringing together the pieces needed for its first venture beyond Earth orbit.

The Electron rockets will carry Moon Express' MX-1 landers to the Moon on a series of missions, which will entail evaluation of the lander's systems, fulfillment of the Google Lunar X-prize goals (which include capturing high-definition video/images as well maneuvering a rover on the lunar surface) and, ultimately, acquiring lunar soil and rock samples and returning them to Earth.

XM-1 and Bob Richards. Photo c/o Gizmag.
Moon Express was co-founded in 2010 by Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards, a Canadian entrepreneur with an extensive resume in the space sector, including a stint as director of the space division at Optech Incorporated (a Toronto, Ontario based firm specializing in laser-based imaging i.e. LIDAR) and is co-founder of the International Space University (ISU), Singularity University and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).

The company's business plan is centred around providing robotic transportation to the Moon's surface as well the sale of lunar data. Moon Express' long term goal is the extraction of lunar resources, such as rare-earth elements (like niobium, yttrium and dysprosium) as well as water (for making rocket fuel).  To achieve these goals, the company has developed the MX-1 spacecraft.

The MX-1 robotic spacecraft platform is a toroidal (doughnut-shaped) design powered by solar cells and having an engine that uses both hydrogen peroxide and kerosene fuels. Moon Express envisions the MX-1 as a flexible, multi-role spacecraft platform that can perform a variety of tasks (the “iPhone of space,” according to the company's website) cheaply and cost-effectively.

In addition to lunar exploration, the company foresees the MX-1 platform fulfilling roles in earth observation, space debris cleanup, satellite refueling, cube-sat deployment and as a space tug.

Info-graphic showing the features and functionality of the innovative design. As outlined in the September 19th, 2015 Nanalyze article, "Rocket Lab: Carbon Fiber Rockets Powered by 3D Printing," Rocket Lab’s competitive advantage over other rocket launch systems is their rocket itself which is "91% cheaper to launch than current methods." According to the article, "the company expects their first commercial launch this year with the first 30 rocket payloads being fully booked. Online bookings extend out over the next four years and some launches as far out as 2019 are already fully booked." Graphic c/o Rocket Labs.

The MX-1 landers will travel into space aboard Electron rockets manufactured by Rocket Lab Ltd, a New Zealand-based firm founded in 2007 by engineer Peter Beck and backed by investors that include venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners (backers of such firms as LinkedIn, Pinterest, Skype, Verisign and Yelp) as well as US aerospace leviathan Lockheed Martin.

Rocket Lab's Electron rockets are 1.2m wide, two-stage, liquid-fuelled vehicles designed to deliver a 150 kg payload to a sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometres above Earth. Though not yet in service, the Electron will make use of several innovations that, if successful, promise to both lower the cost and increase the reliability of launch.

Rutherford engines on Electron rocket next to Peter Beck  Photo c/o Rocket Lab.
Firstly, 3D printing is used extensively in the manufacture of the Electron. The rocket's structure is made of 3D-printed carbon composites, which both harnesses carbon fibre's immense strength and low weight and dramatically lowers manufacturing time and cost. Secondly, the Electron utilizes a unique engine named the Rutherford (in honour of New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford).

The Rutherford Engine is a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine that, in contrast to traditional rockets, uses electrical turbo-pumps. The Rutherford engine also utilizes 3D-printing for its main components, including the thrust chamber, fuel injector, pumps and main valves. These innovations combine to give the Electron rocket an extremely competitive price of just $4.9Mln USD ($6.4Mln CDN). For comparison, the price of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is $61.2Mln USD ($80.2Mln CDN).

Moon Express and Rocket Labs share impressive pedigrees. But with an unproven rocket and competition from other Lunar X-Prize teams, (such as Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology Inc, which plans to deploy its own lunar lander in 2016 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket), victory remains far from certain.
Editors note: As per the October 7th 2015 Space.com article, "Private Moon Race Heats Up with 1st Verified Launch Deal," Israeli based SpaceIL has also announced a launch deal agreement with Spaceflight Industries, an American space company which recently purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher. The company will manifest SpaceIL’s spacecraft as a co-lead spot, which will sit in a designated capsule inside the launcher, among a cluster of secondary payloads.
Brian Orlotti.
Whichever team succeeds, a return to the Moon will signal the next logical step in the evolution of both humanity and the NewSpace industry.   

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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