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Naveen Jain’s Moon Express expects to send first commercial robotic spacecraft to mine the moon in 2016


A BILLIONAIRE who wants to extract precious resources from the moon is aiming to send the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the moon next year with the blessing of NASA.

Naveen Jain, who left India for the US in 1983, is co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, a California-based company, says the core plan is to explore the moon “for resources of benefit to humanity”.

It is known that the moon has vast riches: gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and Helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste.

If the first commercial robotic spacecraft landing is successful, Jain told CNBC its second and third missions would likely involve bringing precious metals, minerals and even moon rocks back to Earth.

“Today, people look at diamonds as this rare thing on Earth,” Jain said.

“Imagine telling someone you love her by giving her the moon.”

But who owns the moon? The United Nations’ 1979 Moon Agreement, which only came into force in 1984, states that “the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.”

The UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which came into force in 1967, states that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind”.

Yet NASA is working with Moon Express, Astrobotic Technologies of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, to develop commercial robotic spacecrafts.

Jain told CNBC that the precious metals and rare minerals can be brought from the moon to help Earth’s energy, health and resource challenges.

“Clearly, NASA has an amazing amount of expertise when it comes to getting to the moon, and it wants to pass that knowledge on to a company like ours that has the best chance of being successful,” Jain, who also founded internet businesses Infospace and Intelius, told CNBC.

Moon Express recently signed an agreement to take over the decommissioned Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral. The launch pad will be used for Moon Express’s lander development and flight-test operations.

Moon Express has been boosted by a $1 million prize from Google. The company is taking part in the Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize, organised by the X Prize Foundation, that will award $30 million to the first company that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth — before the end of 2016.

“Winning the X prize would be a great thing,” Jain told CNBC. “But building a great company is the ultimate goal with us.”

In terms of space exploration, Jain added, “it’s clear that the baton has been passed from the government to the private sector.”

At the end of the month, Moon Express will further test its robotic spacecraft.

The lander — called MX-1 — will take off from the pad, go up and sideways, then land back at the launch pad. “This is to test that the vehicle knows where to go and how to get back to the launch pad safely,” Jain told CNBC.

If the tests are successful, MX-1 will be ready to travel to the moon. The most likely scenario is that it will be attached to a satellite that will take the lander into a low orbit over the Earth. From there the MX-1 will fire its own rocket, powered by hydrogen peroxide, and launch from that orbit to complete its travel to the moon’s surface.

The lander’s first mission is a one-way trip, meaning that it’s not designed to travel back to the Earth.

“The purpose is to show that for the first time, a company has developed the technology to land softly on the moon,” Jain told CNBC. “Landing on the moon is not the hard part. Landing softly is the hard part.”

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