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Moon Express, a company competing for a piece of the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, revealed images and blueprints for a lunar probe it plans to launch in 2015 in a steps towards commercializing this country's access to outer space. 

Moon Express's MX-1 will apparently be able to do a lot of things, and has been described in a number of ways. Fox News said it "is big enough to scoop up some rocks and dirt, store them in an internal compartment, and return it to Earth," and that it "looks for all the world like a pair of donuts wearing an ice cream cone." Moon Express CEO and co-founder Bob Richards said "we call it the iPhone of space,” adding that it is "very small." Small like an iPhone? No, small like "You and I could put our arms around it." 

Fast Company described it as "a futuristic machine that looked to be part hovercraft, part Mars rover." According to Fast Company, an engineer said that MX-1 is a lunar lander, clarifying "“Well, like, it goes to the moon." 

The Moon Express itself pairs scientific exploration with commercial success to justify the project — a jarring combination in a field currently floated by nonprofits. The company's heavy use of startupy buzzwords in explaining the project may explain some of the confused coverage. For example,  the Moon Express website first explicitly explains MX-1's function: 

About the size of a large coffee table, the MX-1 is a completely self-contained single stage spacecraft that can reach the surface of the Moon from geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) commonly used to place communications satellites above the Earth. It is also designed to be a flexible spacecraft platform that can support a number of applications including serving as a flexible, agile upper stage for existing launch systems enabling Earth orbit cubesat deployment, satellite servicing, and "space tug" applications such as cleaning up space debris.

Then moves to the company's grand ambitions:

"The MX-1 is not just a lunar lander, it is a spacecraft workhorse with many markets" said Moon Express Co-Founder & CEO Bob Richards. "The MX-1 is the 'iPhone of space'; a platform capable of supporting many apps including our core plan of exploring the Moon for resources to of benefit to humanity."

And finally spells out their bottom line:

"Moon Express is introducing the MX-1 as the first of a series of robotic space vehicles based on a scalable patent pending design to operate in Earth orbit and deep space destinations. Moon Express will utilize the MX-1 in its maiden technology demonstrator flight in 2015, delivering a number of commercial and government payloads to the Moon and pursuing the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE. 

If successful, they'd be the first private company to land on the moon, and maybe the first to make money off the moon too. The company isn't shy about the potential for mining the rock for its valuable minerals.

So it's difficult not to see Google's project as anything but a means for the often annoyingly forward-looking company to incentivize research in the hopes that it could lead to major profit — or at least publicity — in addition to knowledge. But with NASA bleeding funding, it's increasingly tempting to find merit in private, for-profit space exploration. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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