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US Government Green Lights Private Moon Shot

A plane descending into Newark Liberty International Airport crosses over the full moon rising seen from Eagle Rock Reservation, Wednesday, March 23, 2016, in West Orange, N.J.

A private U.S. company has been given the green light for a commercial flight to the moon.

The first-of-its-kind announcement came Wednesday that Moon Express, Inc. will send a robotic lander to the moon. The lander has been reported to be the size of the fictional droid R2-D2 from the Star Wars movies.

“It’s certainly trailblazing,” said Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and CEO. “It’s a huge milestone for us.”

Until now, private space exploration companies have limited their activities to Earth’s orbit.

Moon Express hopes to launch its mission in 2017, the deadline for Google’s Lunar X Prize, which will be awarded to the first privately funded company to land a vehicle on the moon.

Moon Express joined the contest in 2012, and there are now 16 other companies in the race.

"Even though we are a proud contender [in the X Prize competition], it’s neither a cornerstone of creating the business nor do we need to win it," Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, told The Verge. "But we want to win it."

Other private concerns may not be far behind with other space ventures. SpaceX has said it plans to launch its “Red Dragon” spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Another company, Planetary Resources, is making plans to mine asteroids for minerals.

Moon Express has said it wants to do the same on the moon.