This week Lunar Mission One (LMO), a project aiming to land a spacecraft on the moon’s South Pole, passed its first crowdfunding goal – and then some. Roughly $1.05 million of an overall $937 million funding target had been raised from 7,297 backers at Kickstarter.com.
But don’t hold your breath: that number represents just 0.1% of the money LMO’s U.K.-based founders will need to take off successfully in 2024. In the meantime, the team will focus on the mission, education, science and marketing.
LMO’s vehicle will be launched into space by a medium-lift rocket before setting off for the Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. It will then land, before drilling 100m (330ft) into the surface of the moon’s South Pole to check its potential for sustaining a human base, landing on a rarely-mapped lunar location, in a target zone the size of a football field. Thus far the deepest lunar samples were taken from the U.S. Apollo 17 mission, which flew in 1972. Among the theories the team is looking to verify is the Giant Impact Hypothesis, which is the most widely recognized scientific theory for the moon’s formation around 4.5 billion years ago.
A time capsule, filled with momentos requested for deployment by LMO’s backers, will also be planted on the moon. “We wouldn’t say any have been particularly strange,” says David Iron, founder of Lunar Missions Ltd. “But there have, for example, been plenty of requests to send hair and ashes of loved ones, including pets. This is perhaps not all that surprising though, given the passion many people have for space.”
Many space experts have been glowing in their enthusiasm for the project – including famed British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who wished LMO “nothing but success over the coming years.”
But others have been less happy. Some have decried the project as maverick and lacking the approval of the scientific community. Others have voiced concerns over the proprietary nature of the moon. “Good science will always be subject to peer review, whether it has been funded by the state or by private backers,” counters Iron. “Privately-funded scientific ventures will always be held to account by the scientific community and international law.”
“We would emphasise strongly that we are a public good project with science objectives and no plan to exploit the moon,” he adds. “We do though recognise that the detailed legal arrangements for the use of the Moon have yet to be established, and we hope to raise awareness of the issues as part of our educational programme.”
Clive Neal, of Notre Dame University, agrees that LMO is a breath of fresh air for the astronomical fraternity. “I don’t think this raises anything about the moon’s proprietary nature – there are private companies in the U.S. planning to go to the moon next year and such issues are not stopping them,” he says. “Having private companies travel to the moon will give national space agencies/governments a good kick up the backside!”
However the civil engineering and earth science expert is skeptical that the drilling equipment required to dig a hundred metres into lunar rock exists: “Regolith thickness at the (moon’s) poles is not known.”
Neal believes that the success of LMO will spur others to seek crowdfunding for their own, quite literal, moonshots. Andrew Dix of Crowdfundinsider.com agrees, while stressing that it is not the first time a space project has been crowdfunded. “It clearly shows the profound curiosity and broad public interest in supporting projects of this nature – facilitated by crowdfunding,” he says. “The professional nature of the campaign and caliber of the organizers brought together an amazing project on Kickstarter.”
For now Iron and his team can be happy with a project that has exceeded even its own lofty expectations – if that comes with a heavy caveat that another decade of successes is still required. But the founder hopes that, at the very least, LMO can launch a new era in popular space exploration.
“We already saw, in recent months the excitement around the Rosetta mission,” he says. “Whilst it did gain a huge amount of interest from young people, it was only really for around one month out of a ten year project. With children all over the world engaging with the project from an early stage, participating in the global education programme and joining the LunarMissions Club, we are hoping to create a situation by which they will follow the project passionately for the entire duration of the project. We would then have supported a generation to become inspired by science.”