Moon Express developing “micro lunar lander”

Moon Express CSB lander

An illustration of Moon Express’s lunar lander, based on NASA’s Common Spacecraft Bus. The company is working on a smaller version that takes advantage of advances in avionics, propulsion, and other technologies. (credit: Moon Express)

Moon Express, the startup company that is among the leading teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP), is working on a new lander concept that is smaller than its original design to capture the $20-million prize, the company’s president and CEO said last week.

Speaking at a luncheon Saturday during the NewSpace 2013 conference in San Jose, California, Bob Richards said technological advances in the last three years have helped reduce the size and the cost of the lander. “We believe we can deliver a spacecraft to the surface of the Moon for under $50 million,” or half the company’s original estimates, he said.

The company, he said, has brought a lot of technological development in house that it originally outsourced, following the model of SpaceX. That includes opening a new propulsion facility in Huntsville led by Tim Pickens, who has previously been involved with another GLXP team, Rocket City Space Pioneers, before that team was acquired by Moon Express late last year. Pickens is working on a series of small rocket engines that use hydrogen peroxide propellant to support the lander project.

That and other technological advances have allowed the company to scale down the lander to about half the size of its previous design, based on NASA’s Common Spacecraft Bus developed for the LADEE lunar orbiter mission. The spacecraft, Richards said, would be able to go directly from geostationary transfer orbit—hitching a ride, most likely, as a secondary payload on a commercial communications satellite launch—to the surface of the Moon using onboard propulsion.

“It is so much more powerful, and so much cooler in its integration of technology, that I think it will be a revolutionary new lander system,” Richards said of this “micro lunar lander” design. He did not go into much additional technical detail, citing a request for information released by NASA earlier in the month for commercial lunar lander concepts, which could be the basis for a future public-private partnership for a lander. Richards said a formal unveiling of the new lander design would take place later this year, after the RFI closes.

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