For the first time in the history of space exploration, a private company has been given permission to land on the moon.

Moon Express, a startup composed of a group of Silicon Valley and space entrepreneurs, announced this week that it has been cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set a robotic lander on the moon in 2017. Besides setting a precedent for future private deep space flights, Moon Express is also in the driver's seat to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE.

“This is our license to leave Earth orbit,” Bob Richards, chief executive and co-founder of Moon Express, told SpaceNews. “It removes what had become the most serious barrier to our mission plans for next year.”

To win the XPRIZE, Moon Express has until Dec. 31, 2017, to land its coffee-table sized MX-1 vehicle on the lunar surface, travel a minimum of 1,500 feet, and transmit back high-definition video and images. You can see the test flights in action in the video below:

More than the honor of scoring the top prize, Moon Express expects its missions to pave the way for opening up the lunar surface to potential commercial interests. Soil samples taken from previous moon missions have found rich deposits of gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum and tungsten.

While other companies are currently looking to the deep ocean for rare minerals, Moon Express believes the future lies above.

"So many resources which are extremely rare on Earth are abundant on the moon," Moon Express co-founder Naveen Jain told Wired. "We shouldn't only be mining the Earth, we should be thinking of the moon as our eighth continent."

Jain says the first moon mine won't likely begin production for at least another decade. He believes Moon Express will start sending back samples as soon as its second or third mission.

Future plans aside, the company must first make good on its plans to make contact with the lunar surface in 2017. Current options include either launching from complex number 36 at Cape Canaveral or a new spaceport by private firm Rocket Lab under development in New Zealand.

"The sky is not the limit for Moon Express," Jain told the CS Monitor. "It is the launchpad."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Moon Express to land first private vehicle on the lunar surface in 2017
Moon Express, which has been given the green light by the FAA to attempt a moon landing in 2017, is also in competition for Google's Lunar XPRIZE.