Moon Express has signed a deal with Italy’s National Laboratories of Frascati (INFN-LNF) and the University of Maryland of US, to carry new-generation lunar laser ranging arrays to the Moon.

The company will transport ‘MoonLIGHT’ instruments on the first four of its missions.

Planned for lift-off aboard the Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander in 2017, MoonLIGHT will be used alongside Apollo Cube Corner (CCR) retroreflector arrays to test principles of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

University of Maryland, INFN-LNF, the Matera Laser Ranging Observatory of ASI and the University of Padova worked together to develop the MoonLIGHT instruments.

The project involved design, analysis, thermal and optical simulation, fabrication and thermal-vacuum optical testing.

LNF spokesperson Dr Simone Dell’Agnello said: "These tests reach to the core foundational principles of general relativity.

"Any detected violation would require a major revision of current theoretical understanding of the way the universe works."

The instruments will increase lunar mapping precision and support future lander missions, Moon Express said.

"These tests reach to the core foundational principles of general relativity."

The company is planning to fund $12m for the payloads, spanning four missions in a public-private cost-sharing approach to lunar exploration.

Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain said: "We are making this investment to support our customer and contribute to fundamental science of the Moon and our universe.

"The establishment of a network of new-generation laser retroreflectors on the Moon is also a good business investment into lunar infrastructure for our future missions."

In December 2014, the company completed a series of initial flights with its MTV-1X vehicle. The spacecraft has been upgraded for MTV-1A, and test flights are planned at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, US.

Earlier this year, Moon Express signed a deal with Space Florida to use Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36) at Cape Canaveral for lunar lander flight test operations.

Image: Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft will deliver the MoonLIGHT payloads to the lunar surface. Photo: courtesy of Moon Express, Inc.