NZ's Rocket Lab signs contract with company planning moonshots in 2017

It's all in pursuit of Google's $US30m XPRIZE.

New Zealand-based Rocket Lab has signed a contract with US company Moon Express to help it land three robotic craft on the moon.

Moon Express wants to launch two moonshots in 2017 using one of Rocket Lab's low-cost Electron Rockets, with a third at a later date.

The company has the option of launching from Rocket Lab’s private launch range in New Zealand (currently under construction near Christchurch, Green Party protests notwithstanding) or from an American range.

Why head to the moon? Moon Express does these things because they are hard ... and because it wants to win a competition.

The company is pursuing the $US30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, a competition to land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back high-definition video and images to Earth. The company was awarded $US1 million by Google earlier this year as the only team to flight test a prototype of its lander.

Rocket Labs recently landed a major investment from Lockheed Martin and signed a partnership contract with NASA,

Chief executive and major shareholder Peter Beck always plays his cards close to his chest, and is not putting a value on the Moon Express deal. 

But Rocket Lab's unique selling price is its low-cost launches. The 18-tonne, 12m tall Electron – still in prototype – is designed to get a 150kg payload into low Earth orbit for a super-cheap $US5 million. So at least $US15 million must be involved. Mr Beck says Rocket Labs has 30 launches booked.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck with a prototype Electron rocket at his company's facility near Auckland Airport.

Moon Express' lander will have to find its own way from low Earth orbit to the lunar surface.

"Our MX-1E spacecraft has enough propulsion to take it from low earth Earth orbit to the Moon," Moon Express co-founder and chief executive Bob Richards says

"We will use powerful green fuels and advanced orbital dynamics for low energy pathways to the Moon. Our MX-1 spacecraft design is flexible and adaptable for staging."

It will use "green fuels" (hydrogen peroxide and kerosene) that complement the green rocket technology embraced by Rocket Lab with the Electron, he says.

“Our goal is to blaze a trail to the Moon to unlock its mysteries and resources, so we can improve life on Earth,” Mr Richards says.

He announced the deal with Rocket Lab, signed September 30, at the Space Technology & Investment Forum in San Francisco.

“We are thrilled to have this contract with Rocket Lab and to work with it in fulfilling our dream of providing low-cost missions to the Moon for science and commerce," he says.

Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain adds: “Moon Express is building disruptive technologies that will forever change the cost of access to space, including the asteroids and even the moons of Mars. We are now taking advantage of exponential technology like 3D printing and inexpensive sensors to collapse the capital needed to access the Moon. Coupling these technological advancements with today’s news about the Rocket Lab launch contract is a huge step forward for us in opening whole new markets for space exploration.”

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