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Private moon venture given U.S. clearance

By Richard Stenger

TransOrbital wants to strike lunar paydirt.
TransOrbital wants to strike lunar paydirt.

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(CNN) -- U.S. authorities have given their approval for the first commercial flight to the moon, the group sponsoring the mission announced.

California-based TransOrbital Inc. hopes to send an unmanned spacecraft within the year to photograph, videotape, map and land on our celestial neighbor.

The green light from the U.S. State Department and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration means that TransOrbital is the only private group to have secured U.S. authorization to visit the moon, said company CEO Dennis Laurie.

"TransOrbital has the technology, the desire, and now we have the licensing," Laurie said in a recent statement.

The San Diego-based firm had to assure regulators that its Trailblazer mission would not threaten Apollo landing sites or bring along biological or chemical contaminants.

While in orbit, the Trailblazer craft will take pictures of Earth rising over the moon, and map the lunar surface with a resolution of 1 meter, detailed enough to spot modules and equipment left behind by Apollo astronauts and Russian probes.

Perhaps it will see operating spacecraft as well. A rival group wants to place a satellite in lunar orbit to beam back live video. The Fairfax, Virginia-based LunaCorp said its mission could launch in 2003.

Moreover, the European Space Agency and Japan plan to send spacecraft to the moon the same year.

Unlike previous government-sponsored lunar expeditions, this one could generate some cash.

"We're not returning to the moon simply to explore," Laurie said. "We're returning because there are true revenue opportunities there."

The space development firm is seeking corporate endorsements and plans to market HDTV (high-definition television) video and other multimedia content from the Trailblazer mission.

Eventually, the Trailblazer will go down to the lunar surface, film the descent and deliver a time capsule with cargo from Earth, including personal mementos like photographs and messages.

But it comes with a price. To deposit a business card, for example, will cost $2,500.

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