A trip to the moon? You might pick up a lift with Moon Express in the near future

Space startup Moon Express has finalised its plans to send rockets and landers to the moon, as 2017's race to return to the moon for the first time in 40 years hots up. 

This new moon fever has been triggered by a $20m Lunar X-Prize fund that's offering the cash to any company that gets to the moon and travels around it before the end of 2017. And it has to be funded by mostly private money, so no governments can de-mothball things from the 1970s and join in. 

With over $45 million in its kitty now, Moon Express already also has permission to fly to the moon – from the Federal Aviation Administration – although its launch partner, Rocket Lab USA, hasn't yet managed to fire one of its experimental rockets to anywhere. It'll hopefully launch one early this year.

The eighth continent

Moon Express boss Bob Richards is as wildly optimistic as these sorts of people tend to be, saying: "We now have all the resources in place to shoot for the Moon. Our goal is to expand Earth’s social and economic sphere to the Moon, our largely unexplored eighth continent, and enable a new era of low cost lunar exploration and development for students, scientists, space agencies and commercial interests." 

His plan is to use Rocket Lab USA's Electron rocket to carry the Moon Express MX-1E lunar lander into earth orbit, from where it'll fire its engines and head moonwards, before landing and deploying a booster to travel further about the surface once safely down. 

Four other teams have their launch contracts in place too, so we could end the year with four separate missions literally racing to get their modules, rovers, landers and cameras to the surface of the moon in order to bag the $20m.