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Silicon Valley start-up looking to mine the moon

April 8, 2011 | 12:44 pm

First, man landed on the moon. The next step might be mining it for minerals.

At least, that’s the business plan for Moon Express Inc., or MoonEx, a Silicon Valley start-up MoonEx_USA_Brand building robotic rovers capable of scouring the lunar surface for precious metals and rare metallic elements. The company joins a growing group of entrepreneurs in the private space race.

The private company is building its hardware alongside scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center northwest of San Jose. It was co-founded by Naveen Jain, who made a fortune off his previous start-up InfoSpace Inc.; Barney Pell, the head architect behind Microsoft Corp.'s Bing Internet search engine; and Robert Richards, a commercial space entrepreneur.

From my article in Friday’s Times:

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."

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

Jain 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.

In the meantime, MoonEx is on firm financial footing, Jain said, notable because a moon launch would require massive investment. MoonEx hasn't decided which rocket or company will launch its hardware quite yet, but one of the contenders is Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, Jain said.

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

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Images: From top, MoonEx logo and photo of company co-founder Naveen Jain. Credit: MoonEx.

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