A leading contender in the Google Lunar X Prize competition has signed an agreement to land laser-reflecting arrays on the surface of the Moon, continuing experiments placed on the lunar surface by Apollo astronauts.

Moon Express Inc. will work with Italy’s National Laboratories of Frascati and the University of Maryland on a planned $24 million multi-mission project to emplace a series of “MoonLIGHT” instruments on the Moon, under the scientific leadership of one of the key members of the Apollo Lunar Laser Ranging Team.

“Our next-generation lunar laser ranging arrays offer a promising way to test general relativity and other theories of gravity,” stated Doug Currie, who helmed the Lunar Laser Ranging Station at McDonald Observatory in 1969-70. “Our agreement with Moon Express allows us to get our instruments to the Moon cost-effectively and potentially revolutionize our understanding of gravity.”

Moon Express is one of three competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize working with NASA in unfunded Space Act Agreements to tap the U.S. agency’s expertise in lunar-lander technology as they develop commercial robotic landers (Aerospace DAILY, May 2, 2014). The prize, which is the object of an international competition, offers a total of $30 million to teams that can soft-land on the Moon and send back video from the surface.

The Moon Express agreement was announced May 15 in Frascati, Italy, in connection with a Global Exploration Roadmap workshop of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). Plans call for Moon Express to land MoonLIGHT instruments on its first four missions to the lunar surface, beginning with a technology demonstration mission in 2017.

The University of Maryland and the Frascati laboratory, a branch of Italy’s Institute for Nuclear Physics, are collaborating to develop the instrument packages. Other partners include the Italian Space Agency’s Matera Laser Ranging Observatory and the University of Padova.

Apollo astronauts left five laser-reflector arrays on the Moon, which Currie and other researchers on Earth use to precisely measure the distance between the Earth and Moon as they move through their orbits and rotations. The data allow scientists to check the validity of gravitational theories advanced by Albert Einstein and others.

“These tests reach to the core foundational principles of general relativity,” stated Simone Dell’Agnello of The National Laboratories of Frascati. “Any detected violation would require a major revision of current theoretical understanding of the way the universe works.”
Last year, the X Prize Foundation extended the deadline for a lunar landing by one year, to Dec. 31, 2016, and stipulated that at least one contestant must have scheduled a launch by the end of 2015. Privately funded Moon Express has been flight-testing its MTV-1 lander test vehicle at Kennedy Space Center, and has an agreement with Space Florida to use Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 36 for its activities. Under the agreement announced Friday, it will contribute half of the $24 million cost of the lunar-laser project.

“We are making this investment to support our customer and contribute to fundamental science of the Moon and our universe,” stated Naveen Jain, the co-founder and chairman of Moon Express. “The establishment of a network of new-generation laser retroreflectors on the Moon is also a good business investment into lunar infrastructure for our future missions.”