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Moon Express Acquires Rocket City Space Pioneers for Google Lunar X PRIZE

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

December 21, 2012

Moon Express Acquires Rocket City Space Pioneers for Google Lunar X PRIZE

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

California-based Moon Express has acquired the Huntsville, Alabama-based Rocket City Space Pioneers team today, December 20. This could be called "M&A comes to Lunar robotics," as both entities had NASA contracts and were building landers in pursuit of the $30-million Google (News - Alert) Lunar X Prize to put a commercial robot on the moon by 2015.

Moon Express is acquiring the Rocket City Space Pioneers (RSCP) team via a teaming agreement with Dynetics, and effectively gives Moon Express access to Dynetics space capabilities. The agreement also moves RSCP team leader Tim Pickens to Moon Express as its chief of propulsion engineering. 

Pickens, one of commercial space's "rock stars," was the lead propulsion designer for Burt Rutain's SpaceShipOne, the winner of the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE in 2004.

As part of the agreement, the Moon Express lander will carry to the surface of the Moon a "Spirit of Alabama" insignia to be created in collaboration with the RCSP partners, with the artifact to be attached to the lander or one of its "mobility systems" roving robots. There's no mention of money changing hands, but Pickens will stay in Huntsville and likely pay for Dynetics resources as needed.

Both Moon Express and RCSP/Dynetics were selected by NASA in the fall of 2010 for commercial lunar data contracts worth up to $10 million each. The two organizations have been recognized as leading contenders for the $30-million Google Lunar X PRIZE. 

Ultimately, Moon Express plans a series of missions to explore the Moon. Mining ice and platinum-group metals from the lunar surface is a longer-term goal.

To win the main $20-million Google Lunar X PRIZE, a 90-percent privately funded team must safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have the robot travel 500 meters over the surface, and send video, images and data back to Earth. Teams have until the end of 2015 to get to the moon.

If a government- funded mission successfully explores the lunar surface before a commercial landing, the grand prize value goes down to $15 million. Addition bonus prize money is available for a second place landing ($5 million), $4 million for other mission objectives such as operating at night, traveling more than five kilometers across the lunar service, precision landing near an Apollo site, and detection of water.

None of the X PRIZE teams have set a launch date. Moon Express has previously said it hoped to conduct its first lunar mission in late 2013 or early 2014, but bringing in Pickens as chief propulsion engineer implies there's still work to be done before the company puts hardware on top of a rocket.

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Edited by Braden Becker

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