We’ve learned a lot about the moon since 1969, when the first humans landed on it. Recent technology has allowed us to get some amazing looks at its surface, but there is still a lot we don’t know. Now, two startup companies have teamed up to attempt to send a robotic rover to the moon for the purpose of sending HD video back to Earth, with the help of a 3D printed rocket.
California-based Moon Express has spent the last five years developing technology to make moon exploration easier and more affordable than ever. Describing the moon as the “eighth continent,” the company sees vast potential for mining natural resources from the moon’s surface. Now, they intend to launch their HD-equipped robotic rover by 2017 aboard the Electron rocket by New Zealand’s Rocket Lab Ltd. The Electron, which we wrote about in April, made the news earlier this year as the world’s first battery-powered rocket, with an engine made almost entirely of 3D printed parts. The rocket’s Rutherford engine takes only three days to build, thanks to the simplification made possible by 3D printing. Rocket Lab has been booking flights on the rocket, which has the capacity to carry loads of up to 330 pounds. As of this point, however, the Electron has only been fired on a test bed, and has not yet actually flown. Moon Express is willing to take a gamble on the rocket, though; the company has already booked three flights for their mission.
“Landing on the moon the first time would be fantastic,” said Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, “but we want to have some backup plans and to be able to try it again and then try it again.”
If Moon Express’ mission succeeds before the end of 2017, they will be eligible for Google’s Lunar XPRIZE, which will award $20 million to the first team to successfully land a privately funded rover on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high definition video and images. Moon Express is one of 16 teams in the running for the prize, and the first to announce a launch date. They would also, if successful, earn the distinction of being the first privately owned company to achieve a soft lunar landing.
“Moon Express is building disruptive technologies that will forever change the cost of access to space, including the asteroids and even the moons of Mars,” said Naveen Jain, Moon Express Co-Founder and Chairman. “We are now taking advantage of exponential technology like 3D printing and inexpensive sensors to collapse the capital needed to access the Moon. Coupling these technological advancements with (the) news about the Rocket Lab launch contract is a huge step forward for us in opening whole new markets for space exploration.”
NASA has been running tests on various 3D printed rocket parts over the past few years, and the results have been promising. The 3D printed parts have been found to function as well as, if not better than, traditionally manufactured parts, at a fraction of the cost and build time. If Moon Express and Rocket Lab succeed in putting the Electron rocket on the moon, it will be a breakthrough moment, with exciting implications for a future of easier, more affordable space exploration.
What are your thoughts on 3D printing and space travel? Let us know in the 3D Printed Rocket forum thread on 3DPB.com.