Private company aims to mine moon for rare metallic elements

April 11, 2011 (Source: The Tennessean) — A team of prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is 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.

Although there’s no guarantee, MoonEx officials think the moon may may be a “gold mine” of these materials, known as rare earth elements.

“From an entrepreneur’s perspective, the moon has never truly been explored,” said Naveen Jain, chairman and company co-founder.

The Mountain View, Calif., startup has about 25 employees, including former NASA engineers.
Wealth backs venture

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 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 place a robot on the moon’s surface and have it explore at least one-third 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 U.S., he said, “has already brought back moon rocks to our country without any other country fighting war over it.”

The startup 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.”