For the first time, the US government has given a private spaceflight company approval to land on the Moon. Moon Express, based in Mountain View, California, plans to conduct the first in what it hopes will be a series of missions to the Moon in 2017, the company told The Verge. But until now, the company didn't have the regulatory approval needed to conduct its mission. The decision announced Wednesday changes that — and could mean that more approvals for other private companies will soon be on the way.
Getting the US government to agree to the mission wasn't easy. Right now, there is no regulatory framework for getting approval for a mission to the moon. The government is working on fixing that, but for now Moon Express managed to get around the problem by sharing more information about its goals and plans than the government asked for.
Namely, the company planned its mission so it would meet important requirements of the Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement that dictates how countries are supposed to carry out missions in space. These requirements include letting the US government oversee the mission, making sure that the mission doesn't interfere with those of other nations, and avoiding the spread of bacteria on the moon's surface.
If Moon Express makes it to the Moon in 2017, the company could earn Google's Lunar X Prize — a competition that aims to land privately funded vehicles on the Moon. "We want to win it," Moon Express CEO Bob Richards told The Verge. But the company has ambitions beyond Google's prize. It hopes to gather metals and rare elements on the moon's surface, and bring these materials back to Earth by 2020.