(Sheridan, Wyo) The Lunar X Prize, which has spurred a decade of innovation in lunar exploration technology, will be ending in March.
The competition was announced in 2007, and it challenged privately funded teams to reach the moon with a robotic spacecraft, travel 500 meters, and transmit back images by 2014. The deadline has been repeatedly extended as it become obvious that teams were making significant progress but were not going to launch in time. The latest extension moved the deadline from a December 31, 2017 launch to a landing by March 31, 2018. 30 original teams have been winnowed down to just four over the years, with the most recent drop-out announced today.
The official Indian entry, Team Indus, whose underdog story has been popular in the press, made the heartbreaking announcement yesterday that they would miss their scheduled launch as they were unable to keep up with their payments.
The newest deadline was despite the fact that officials had said it would end at the end of 2017 without a winner. This time they really mean it though. The switch from a launch date to a landing date stops a team from hastily sending out a spacecraft that might take a long time to even reach the moon. It also signals that the officials are willing to cheer on the most promising competitors for one last sprint across the finish line.
First place would be awarded 20 million dollars. Another 10 million dollars is set aside for second place and other “milestones,” including the most important step: the landing. Only three entities in history have accomplished a “soft landing” on the surface of the Moon: The United States, Russia, and China. A “soft” landing is one that a human and/or sensitive electronic equipment can survive, thanks to powered braking rockets.
The USA and Russia, of course, competed to make it to the Moon almost fifty years ago, and the USA was the only one to land human beings. China landed a robotic rover in December of 2013 as part of a program aimed at eventual manned missions.
But those were all nations, and this space race is taking place in the private sector.
The Lunar X Prize is a collaboration between the X Prize Foundation and the Google X Factory, who describe themselves as a “moonshot factory.” “Our mission is to invent and launch “moonshot” technologies that we hope could someday make the world a radically better place,” their mission statement reads. Projects include everything from geothermal energy to internet service providing balloons.
The fact remains that not a single competitor has even launched with less than three months to the deadline. Here are the four remaining teams and the challenges that they face:
Moon Express was the first US company to gain approval and a launch contract. Rocket Lab, the company they are contracted with, have yet to successfully deliver a payload to space. They first tested their Electron rocket in May, which made it to space but had to be aborted because of a telemetry error. A test in December was postponed due to a power fault.
Synergy Moon is a huge amalgamation of professionals from all walks of life on six continents. Human Synergy Project and Interplanetary Ventures entered the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition separately as Letter of Intent Teams in 2008, and later merged to become the fully registered Team Synergy Moon in 2009. The Interorbital Systems Neptune Rocket the team is relying on has, as yet, only been tested at low altitude on a small scale.
This Japanese team is comprised of ispace employees, Tohoku University researchers and students, and many pro bonos. Their diverse backgrounds include design, writing, programming, business, law, and engineering. They have created many iterations of their rover and done extensive testing over the years. The problem for Hakuto is that their spacecraft were contracted to hitch a ride with TeamIndus on the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Now that TeamIndus has dropped out, Hakuto’s launch plans are uncertain. On the other hand, the team just made big news by raising over $90 million!
SpaceIL was founded by three Israeli engineers as a nonprofit. Beyond the Lunar X Prize, they seek to create what they call an “Apollo moment” for Israel, inspiring entire generations to seek careers in space technologies. Instead of a rover, their spacecraft is designed to “hop” short distances after landing in order to accomplish the 500 meter travel requirement. Space IL was the first team to reach the milestone of securing a launch contract and, aside from the ISRO vehicle TeamIndus and Hakuto were going to use, they are the only team using a proven rocket. They plan to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but haven’t actually scheduled a launch yet. In mid December they made a desperate fundraising push, claiming they needed $7.5 million dollars.
It seems highly unlikely at this point that any of the remaining teams will be able to claim the prize by the end of March. This may be of little consequence, however. At least one of them is bound to get close, and in the meantime the goal has been accomplished. A new space race has begun in earnest and the next decade will see dozens of viable commercial space ventures.
As time has gone on, the Lunar X competitors have all come to a similar place: winning the prize would be a nice bit of glory, but it is far from the main goal of long term commercialization of the moon. Besides, they have all spent far more money than the $20 million prize and will spend much more as time goes on. On deadline or not, they will land on the moon, each for their own reasons.