Washington: Moon Express, a California-based aerospace company co-founded by Indian-American billionaire Naveen Jain, aims to send the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the moon next year as part of a NASA lunar initiative.
Moon Express, which earlier this year became the first company to successfully test a prototype of a lunar lander, is planning a series of other tests later this year to pave the way for sending its lander to the moon in 2016, Jain told NBC News.
The lander's first mission is a one-way trip, meaning that it's not designed to travel back to the Earth, he said.
"The purpose is to show that for the first time, a company has developed the technology to land softly on the moon," Jain was quoted as saying. "Landing on the moon is not the hard part. Landing softly is the hard part."
Looking ahead 15 or 20 years, Jain told NBC News, he envisions a day when the moon is used as a sort of way station enabling easier travel for exploration to other planets.
In the meantime, he said the lander's second and third missions could 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.
He added: "Imagine telling someone you love her by giving her the moon."
Moon Express conducted its tests with the support of NASA engineers as part of its lunar initiative - known as Catalyst - designed to spur new commercial US capabilities to reach the moon and tap into its considerable resources.
"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 was quoted as saying.
Jain, who also founded Internet companies Infospace and Intelius, said the moon holds precious metals and rare minerals that can be brought back to help address Earth's energy, health and resource challenges.
Moon Express also recently signed an agreement to take over Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Jain said.
The historic launchpad will be used for Moon Express's lander development and flight-test operations.
Before it was decommissioned, the launchpad was home to NASA's Atlas-Centaur rocket programme and its Surveyor moon landers.
"We went to the moon 50 years ago, yet today we have more computing power with our iPhones than the computers that sent men into space," Jain was quoted as saying.
"That type of exponential technological growth is allowing things to happen that was never possible before."
Moon Express is already at the front of the pack of companies vying for the Google Lunar X Prize - a competition organized by the X Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google - to spur privately funded space exploration.
It will award $30 million to the first company that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 metres across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth - all before the end of 2016.
In January, Moon Express was awarded a $1 million milestone prize from Google for being the only company in the competition so far to test a prototype of its lander.
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