Last year, Moon Express announced its plans to set up a mine on the moon to bring back precious resources, including metals and moon rocks.

Backed by investors including controversial Trump backer billionaire - and New Zealand citizen - Peter Thiel, it hopes to launch its first craft from Cape Canaveral at the end of this year.

The firm this week revealed a new US$20 million (NZ$27m) investment, and claims it is now fully funded for its first launch.

Moon Express will link with Kiwi firm Rocket Lab, founded by CEO Peter Beck, who will use its Electron rocket system to launch three missions to the moon.


Co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain told CNBC the latest investment means "Moon Express now has all the capital it needs to land its small robotic spacecraft on the surface of the moon in November or December of 2017."

The company has raised a total of US$45m ($61.8m) from investors including Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, Collaborative Fund, and Autodesk.

Jain says he hopes it will be the first in a series of "low cost" unmanned missions.

"Our prime directive is to open up the Moon's vast resources for humanity, and establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit," the firm proclaims.

As well as completing its recent financing round, Moon Express has also entered Google's Lunar Xprize competition, which will give a firm US$30m ($41.2m) in reward for landing a rover on the moon.

The winner must travel 500 metres on the Moon's surface and send pictures back to Google on Earth.

Last year, the Florida-based company won US government permission to send a robotic lander to the moon.

The move is the first time the United States has cleared a private space mission to fly beyond Earth's orbit.


The Federal Aviation Administration's unprecedented go-ahead for the Moon Express mission also sets a legal and regulatory framework for a host of other commercial expeditions to the moon, asteroids and Mars.

As approved by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the privately held Moon Express, headquartered in Cape Canaveral, plans to fly a suitcase-sized lander to the moon for a two-week mission this year, said the company founder and chief executive Bob Richards.

The spacecraft will carry a number of science experiments and some commercial cargo on its one-way trip to the lunar surface, including cremated human remains, and will beam back pictures and video to Earth, the company said.

Before now, no government agency was recognized as having authority to oversee private missions beyond Earth's orbit, though a 1967 international treaty holds the United States responsible for any flights into space by its non-government entities.

So far, only government agencies have flown spacecraft beyond the orbit of the Earth.

To address the conundrum, the FAA, which already exercises jurisdiction over commercial rocket launches in the United States, led an interagency review of the Moon Express proposal, which included steps the company would take to ensure compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Photo / Moon Express
Photo / Moon Express

"It's been a very steep mountain,' Richards said in a telephone interview.

"We had to lay the track at the same time that we wanted to do the mission."

Other companies are expected to soon follow the same framework.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Space Exploration Technologies, plans to fly a spacecraft to Mars in 2018, a mission that raises a host of issues dealing with protecting potential indigenous life on the planet from contamination by Earth microbes.

Among other private space ventures in the works are missions to mine asteroids, operate science labs and repair and service satellites.

Planetary protection is less of a concern on the moon, but Moon Express did have to contend with concerns about disturbing Apollo and other historic lunar landing sites, among other issues.

"We proposed a scenario that built on the existing FAA mission-approval framework," Richards said.

NASA and other agencies, including the Defense, State and Commerce departments, ultimately agreed that no new law was necessary, Richards said.

As part of the agreement, NASA will advise, but not regulate, Moon Express activities on the lunar surface.

Up until now, a regulatory hurdle has been preventing the plans from going ahead because it is the first mission of its kind.

The Florida-based company, Moon Express, is partnering with Nasa, to send a 20lb package of scientific hardware to the moon next year.

Eventually, it wants provide commercial services to companies on Earth.

Such a move could pave the way for other private companies to get approval for their plans, paving the way for missions such as asteroid mining and space tourism.

Moon Express is now close to achieving "mission approval" by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the WSJ, after months of lobbying.

The company is among those competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, a US$30m ($41.2m) prize aimed to "incentivise space entrepreneurs to create a new era of affordable access to the moon and beyond."

In order to win this money, a private company must land safely on the surface of the moon, travel 1,640ft (500 metres) on its surface, and send two signals back to the Earth.

"We believe it's critical for humanity to become a multi-world species and that our sister world, the moon, is an eighth continent holding vast resources that can help us enrich and secure our future," the Moon Express website says.

"The moon is unique in that its surface has remained relatively constant over billions of years."

Moon Express was awarded US$1 million ($1.38m) by Google last year as the only team shooting for the moon to flight test a prototype of its lander.

An FAA spokesman told WSJ the agency "is currently working through the interagency process to ensure a mechanism is in place that permits emerging commercial space operations" such as Moon Express.

But the agency declined to elaborate until "this process has concluded."

Bob Richards, chief executive and a founder of Moon Express, said "We've become a regulatory pathfinder out of necessity," because in the past "only governments have undertaken space missions beyond Earth orbit."

The company has contracted, Rocket Lab, which was founded in New Zealand by Beck but is now headquartered in Los Angeles, to launch its robotic spacecraft.

Rocket Lab will use its Electron rocket system to launch three missions of Moon Express' MX-1 lunar lander spacecraft, starting this year.

The launches will take place either from New Zealand, where Rocket Lab is building a North Island launch site at Mahia Peninsula, or from an American range.

New Zealand Rocket Electron System. Photo / Geoff Dale
New Zealand Rocket Electron System. Photo / Geoff Dale

Rocket Lab uses battery-powered rocket engines that are cheaper than traditional engines and are quickly created using 3D printers.

Moon Express hopes to mine our satellite for materials like platinum-group metals, rare earth metals, helium-3 and moon rocks.

"Most of the elements that are rare on Earth are believed to have originated from space, and are largely on the surface of the moon," the company says.

"Reaching for the moon in a new paradigm of commercial economic endeavour is key to unlocking knowledge and resources that will help propel us into our future as a space-faring species."

Private companies, including Elon Musk's Space X, Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, are increasingly entering the space business following cuts to funding by Nasa.

Space X recently announced it will offer the first postal service to send packages to Mars starting in 2018, and prices start at US$60m ($82.5m).

Bezos, the founder of and owner of The Washington Post newspaper, said last month that Blue Origin expects to begin crewed test flights of the New Shepard, the company's flagship rocket next year and begin flying paying passengers as early as 2018.