Published online 10 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/457770b

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One more step for private Moon mission

Odyssey Moon secures Dutch payload.

A spectrometer meant to fly to Mars on a European mission in 2016 will get to the Moon first. The Dutch team that is building the instrument last week announced it would send a scaled-up version, dubbed MoonShot, to the lunar surface by 2011 with Odyssey Moon, a company headquartered in the Isle of Man, UK.

The MoonOne lander aims to fly cargo to the Moon for cash.Odyssey Moon

If it works, the private MoonOne lander and its successors could serve scientists much as a commercial trucking company serves wholesalers, providing a platform to ferry science instruments and other payloads to the lunar surface.

"The intention is to bring on a new age," says Alan Stern, science mission director for Odyssey Moon and former science chief at NASA. That could mean new opportunities for scientists whose instruments were cut or scaled back in government missions, or whose nations do not have their own lunar spacecraft. "It's an ongoing business that will make sense many years in the future," Stern says.

MoonShot was originally designed to look for organic compounds in the Martian soil using two different types of laser-based spectrometry. The version that will go to Mars on the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission has been cut back to include only a Raman spectrometer, which uses a laser beam to detect chemical signatures, including organic compounds, in surface samples. The version flying privately to the Moon, however, will also have a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer, which will scan the lunar soil and can detect heavy metals. "You shine the laser and just find out what's there," says Erik Laan, an engineer who helped build the instrument at TNO Science and Industry in Delft, the Netherlands.

MoonShot would be the first Dutch instrument on the lunar surface. A consortium of European companies, including Philips Applied Technologies, Dutch consultants Space Horizon, the Free University in Amsterdam and the Delft University of Technology, will pitch in to pay Odyssey Moon an unspecified amount — although less than US$10 million — to transport the instrument.

The MoonOne lander is already slated to carry two other commercial payloads. These include a precursor to the International Lunar Observatory, a communications dish at the lunar south pole envisioned by a Hawaii-based non-profit organization, and packages from Texas-based company Celestis, which acts as a broker for ferrying cremated remains and other relics to the Moon.

Odyssey Moon has also signed up Paul Spudis, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who serves as the company's chief scientist. And it has partnered with NASA to model its lunar lander after the US space agency's common spacecraft bus, which uses a modular design that can be manipulated into either a lander or an orbiter.

Robert Richards, Odyssey Moon's founder, describes it as a logistics company with a business model similar to that of FedEx. "We want to get customer packages to the Moon," he says, "and we don't really care what we use to do it as long as it gets there reliably and cost-effectively." Eventually, such private craft might end up helping to resupply government-initiated efforts, such as the proposed International Lunar Network, a series of stations containing scientific instruments that will be positioned at different places across the lunar surface.

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Odyssey Moon and 15 other teams are also vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, a US$20-million race to be the first privately funded spacecraft to relay high-definition video, images and data from a lunar lander back to Earth. The teams vary in their backgrounds, interests and long-term goals. A team named Next Giant Leap, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Space Systems Laboratory and MicroSat Systems of Littleton, Colorado, among others, is focusing on meeting the prize's minimum criteria and has no plans yet to develop a commercial craft of its own. Astrobotic Technology, founded by robotics specialist William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, plans to launch exploratory missions, first to the Apollo 11 site and then to the lunar poles.

Competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize have until 31 December 2014 to stake their claim on the cash awards and the Moon. 

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