The first private team to send a robot to the moon can win $20 million—but it has to do it soon. After two extensions the new deadline for the Google Lunar XPRIZE has been pushed to 2016, leaving teams a mere two years to build, test and fly their missions. Succeeding within that time frame is a tall order, but still within reach for some of the top teams, experts say.
To help the leaders reach their goal, XPRIZE awarded $6 million in “Milestone Prizes” this week to teams that have made headway developing landing, mobility and imaging technologies needed for the mission. “It was clear that although the teams were making progress, a little bit more incentive was needed to really push them along,” says Andrew Barton, director of technical operations for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. To win the full $20-million purse, outfits must land a vehicle on the lunar surface, move it at least 500 meters and send high-definition photos and videos back to Earth. “At this point we feel very, very good about getting there,” says Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of one of the teams, Moon Express, Inc. “We have a prototype lander, we’ve tested it.”
Unlike most competitors, the Silicon Valley–based company does not plan to send a rover but rather a “hopper” that will land, fire a rocket to lift about 1.5 to three meters in the air and fly sideways to explore new areas on the moon.
Tall order
XPRIZE first announced the contest in 2007 with an initial deadline at the end of 2012. When that target proved out of reach, the organizers extended the date to 2015, and last month they announced that teams will have an extra year—until December 31, 2016—to launch their missions. For the contest to move forward, however, at least one team must provide proof by the end of 2015 that it has scheduled a launch for sometime the following year. The missed deadlines reflect financial, rather than technical, challenges in the competition, according to Barton. “It’s not so much that it became too difficult; it’s a question of finding the funds for these teams to pay for the stuff they have to do,” he says. “They were taking longer than anticipated to close their business cases.”
Around 2012 the number of competing teams peaked at 30. That group has shrunk to 18 today, with some teams merging and others dropping out. Besides Moon Express, only four other competitors won Milestone Prizes: Astrobotic, which started at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute; Tokyo-based Hakuto; India’s Team Indus; and Part-Time Scientists, headquartered in Germany.
Some of the teams are fairly well funded commercial outfits with dozens of members—some full-time workers—whereas others are smaller and scrappier. “Moon Express is the strongest party in terms of funding,” says space policy expert Roger Handberg of the University of Central Florida. “And Astrobotic has some strength because they came out of Carnegie Mellon. This is telling you who are going to be the ones who are really going to try for the prize.”
To win a Milestone Prize teams had to identify in 2013 the primary technical risks they faced and then demonstrate progress in reducing those risks significantly by the end of 2014. During that time judges monitored the groups as they tested their designs and awarded prizes in each of the three categories: landing (hardware needed to make a soft lunar touchdown), mobility (the tools necessary to move the vehicle and imagery (systems to capture images and video and beam them home). If the Milestone-winning teams go on to win the full $20-million grand prize or the second-place award, their initial winnings will be deducted from the purse.
Shoestring budgets
At this point in the competition most serious teams have built and tested prototypes of their spacecraft, but none have built finished flight hardware. In the remaining two years of competition they must complete their designs, construct the hardware, test it rigorously to make sure it can withstand launch, then fly it.
Barton said that workload is doable. He estimates that construction of commercial space vehicles typically takes about three months, and testing another three months. Government space programs, however, can take years for both construction and testing stages. “NASA is hyperconservative, so they spend more time on the ground to do testing,” says Roger Launius, associate director of collections and curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “These folks are operating closer to the margin, working more quickly, so there’s more risk.”
Three governments—the U.S., Russia and China—have already accomplished the Lunar XPRIZE goal, but these commercial teams will have to achieve the same feat on shoestring budgets. “I think it will happen eventually,” Handberg says. “It’s clearly doable technology. It’s rocket science, but it’s proven rocket science.”
Success will hinge not just on which teams can develop the technology for the mission, but which can afford to pay the roughly $50 million for a rocket to launch them to the moon. Moon Express hopes to save money by keeping its spacecraft small enough to hitch a ride with a communications satellite as a second payload. That option would cost roughly $10 million.
If teams are successful in reaching the moon, there are numerous possible ways to recoup their money in addition to the prize purses. NASA signed contracts in 2010 to buy spacecraft design details as well as eventual science data collected on the moon from Lunar XPRIZE teams that accomplish their missions. And many of the teams say space tourism, scientific missions and commercial mining of the moon are among their eventual goals. “We did not start this company to win this prize,” Jain says. “To us this is a business—within our lifetimes the meaning of ‘honeymoon’ really will be taking your honey to the moon.”
XPRIZE is also offering bonus prizes for achieving extra objectives, such as capturing footage of one of the Apollo moon landing spots—although that goal has raised fears that XPRIZE teams might inadvertently damage the historical sites.
Even if none of the entrants manage to accomplish their mission before time runs out, the competition may still have been worth it, examples from history suggest. In 1910 publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst sponsored a $50,000 prize for the first person who could fly a plane across the continental U.S. in 30 days or less. Aviator Calbraith Rodgers tried for the prize but was unable to finish the flight in the allotted time. “But the attempt was worth doing and it spurred a lot of other activities,” Launius says. “It’s conceivable we may have the same thing here. Even if nobody successfully captures the prize, what technologies might emerge that will enhance future activities in space?”