Monday, June 05, 2017

Only Seven Years after Bob Richards Left Canada, His Rover is Going to the Moon

          By Brian Orlotti

With the recent launch of New Zealand-based Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, the path is now open for the first private lunar mission later this year. This mission, led by US-based Google Lunar X-Prize team Moon Express (MoonEx), is a sobering example of Canadians being both leaders and laggards in the NewSpace industry.

MoonEx co-founder and CEO Richards shows off an early model of the MX-1 lunar lander in 2013. As outlined in the October 1st, 2015 Geekwire post, "Moon Express and Rocket Lab make deal for lunar landings in 2017," Moon Express had "reserved three lunar lander launches from a startup called Rocket Lab starting in 2017, with an eye toward putting robots on the moon’s surface and winning the lion’s share of the $30Mln US ($40Mln CDN) Google Lunar X Prize." Last weeks successful launch of the first Rocket Lab Electron rocket, as outlined in the May 29th, 2017 post, "Rocket Lab Launches "Orbital Class" Rocket From a Private Launch Pad," suggests that the original plan is moving forward. Photo c/o Moon Express via You-Tube.

MoonEx was co-founded in 2010 by Dr. Robert "Bob" Richards, a Canadian expat entrepreneur with an extensive resume in the space sector, including a stint as director of the space division at Toronto, ON based Optech Incorporated which, as outlined in the April 30th, 2015 Teledyne Dalsa press release, "Teledyne Acquires Remaining Interest in Optech," is now known as Teledyne Optech, and specializes in laser-based imaging (i.e. LIDAR).

While in Canada, Richards also co-founded the International Space University (ISU), Singularity University and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).

MoonEx’s business plan is centered around providing robotic transportation to the Moon's surface as well the sale of lunar data. The company’s 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.

As outlined in the June 2nd, 2017 Popular Mechanics post, "First Private Moon Landing Gears Up for Launch by Years End," Moon Express and Rocket Lab have only a tiny launch window before the end of 2017, when the the deadline to win the Google's Lunar X Prize competition expires. As outlined in the article, "a lot needs to happen to pull off the moon landing before the close of 2017," including two more test flights, and then two commercial flights (for other paying customers) before the Moon Express launch in December. Screenshot c/o Popular Mechanics.

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 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. Moon Express’ lunar lander is now based on the latest iteration of the platform, the MX-1E.

The MX-1E lander will be carried by Electron rocket to low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft will then fire its thrusters, cruise through space, conduct a braking burn to enter lunar orbit, and finally complete descent and landing burns.

After touchdown on the Moon, the MX-1E will begin brief observations with its suite of five science instruments. After a minute of observation, the MX-1E will fire its rocket engines again and fly to a new location. In addition to completing one of the Lunar X Prize requirements, this hopping from place to place will enable the lander to collect the most science data possible.

Bob Richards discussed his reasons for relocating to Silicon Valley on the December 20th, 2010 edition of "The Space Show with David Livingston." In the interview, Richards said that he felt that “the place to be for commercial space is the United States at this point in time, and the epicenter of commercial space is the west coast of the United States.” He also said that, while one of his most rewarding periods was made possible through the backing of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for his work on the Phoenix Mars Mission, “if you take a look at the (CSA) budget, it’s only a small fraction of what NASA gets.” Besides, in 2010 Canada was simply “not a good place” to build a commercial space company. MoonEx was co-founded by Richards, Naveen Jain and Barney Pell out of Mountainview, CA in August 2010. Screenshot c/o The Space Show with David Livingston.

One of the instruments on the first mission will be a small experimental telescope from the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA). The public will be given the opportunity to select targets for viewing. ILOA ultimately aims to construct a large optical/radio telescope at the Moon’s south pole, granting them an unobstructed view of the deep universe, with MoonEx’s MX-1E platform quite possibly doing the heavy lifting.

Bob Richards and his team are to be commended for their patience and perseverance which have enabled them to nearly reach their goal. However, it is tempting to wonder what Richards (and other expats) could have achieved in Canada if our country’s investment and regulatory climates enabled space entrepreneurs to thrive.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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