Silicon Valley's Moon Express Inc said it has signed up Lockheed Martin-backed Rocket Lab to launch its robotic spacecraft as it seeks to become the first private venture to reach the moon.
The deal increases its chances of winning a $30 million Google Inc prize for the first privately funded lunar landing. Moon Express was awarded $1 million by Google this year as the only team shooting for the moon to flight test a prototype of its lander.
Under the launch services contract, Rocket Lab, which was founded in New Zealand but is now headquartered in Los Angeles, will use its Electron rocket system to launch three missions of Moon Express' MX-1 lunar lander spacecraft, starting in 2017.
The launches will take place either from New Zealand, where Rocket Lab is building a South Island launch site, or from an American range.
Rocket Lab uses battery-powered rocket engines that are cheaper than traditional engines and are quickly created using 3D printers.
Private companies, including Elon Musk's Space X and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, are increasingly entering the space business following cuts to funding by U.S. space agency NASA.
(The story was refiled to remove extraneous words in paragraph three)
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Jane Wardell and Edwina Gibbs)