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MoonEx aims to scour moon for rare materials

The Silicon Valley start-up is building machines with NASA scientists that are designed to search the lunar surface for precious metals and scarce metallic elements.

April 08, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

A team of prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are shooting for the moon with a new private venture aimed at scouring the lunar surface for precious metals and rare metallic elements.

The private company Moon Express Inc., or MoonEx, is building robotic rovers alongside scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center northwest of San Jose. MoonEx's machines are designed to look for materials that are scarce on Earth but found in everything from a Toyota Prius car battery to guidance systems on cruise missiles.

While there's no guarantee the moon is flush with these materials, MoonEx officials think it may be a "gold mine" of so-called rare earth elements.

"From an entrepreneur's perspective, the moon has never truly been explored," said Naveen Jain, chairman and company co-founder. "We think it could hold resources that benefit Earth and all humanity."

The Mountain View start-up is made up of about 25 employees, including former NASA engineers.

The founding team has its roots in the Internet world. Jain amassed a fortune founding data-aggregating website InfoSpace Inc. Another MoonEx co-founder, Barney Pell, is the head architect behind Microsoft Corp.'s Bing Internet search engine.

Beyond its founders' personal wealth and other investments, MoonEx has received a NASA contract that could be worth up to $10 million.

The company is among several teams hoping to someday win the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a $30-million race to the moon in which a privately-funded team must successfully place a robot on the moon's surface and have it explore at least 1/3 of a mile. It also must transmit high definition video and images back to Earth before 2016.

The idea of exploiting the moon's resources for private gain is not likely to be a concern, Jain said. The United States, he said, "has already brought back moon rocks to our country without any other country fighting war over it."

"I also think that the moon will be treated no differently than the international water in our oceans," he added. "In this case, no one really owns the water but any company or country can mine the resources … from the international water as long as they follow certain safety/moral guidelines."

Jain also noted that "there is strong legal precedent and consensus of 'finders keepers' for resources that are liberated through private investment, and the same will be true on the moon. You don't have to own land to have ownership of resources you unlock from it. Moon Express will use existing precedents of peaceful presence and exploration set by the U.S. government 40 years ago."

The start-up is on firm financial footing, Jain said, notable because a moon launch would require massive investment. In the coming months, MoonEx hopes to stage a public demonstration of its hardware.

"MoonEx should be ready to land on the lunar surface by 2013," Jain said. "It's our goal to be the first company there and stay there."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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