Eight years is a long time to maintain singular focus on any goal, particularly one as complex and expensive as sending a robot to explore the moon. Teams competing in the Google Lunar X PRIZE—first announced in September 2007, with a deadline of December 2015—know this firsthand, which is why several of them jumped at the chance to win a piece of the $6 million being offering as “milestone prizes” to help fund some of the competition’s best ideas.
Competition organizers on Wednesday announced five finalists for these awards—Astrobotic, Hakuto, Moon Express, Part-Time Scientists and Team Indus. These teams are eligible for a cash infusion if by September 2014 they can show sufficient progress in their preparations to meet the competition’s three main goals—landing a rover on the moon, having it travel at least 500 meters and communicating from the lunar surface. This is the first time an X PRIZE competition has offered such interim incentives, an acknowledgement of the competitors’ technological achievements as well as the challenges of financing those achievements.
Three teams—Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, Moon Express (headquartered at the NASA Research Park in Mountain View, Calif.) and India’s Team Indus—each have a shot at $1-million prizes if they can impress the judges with the hardware and software they are developing to enable a soft landing on the moon.
Likewise, Astrobotic, Moon Express, Japan’s Hakuto Co. and Germany’s Part-Time Scientists teams each stand to win $500,000 for the mobility subsystems they are creating to move their landers at least 500 meters after touchdown. Astrobotic, Moon Express, Part-Time-Scientists and Team Indus are also up for the $250,000 award for an imaging subsystem that can produce “mooncasts” of high-quality images and video from the lunar surface.
To become a finalist each team submitted documents detailing its mission plan, progress it is making on the technology required to carry out the mission, and a specific set of testing and simulation goals that meet one or more of the milestone prize categories. Each team that makes good on those goals by the September 30 deadline will win prize money.
In preparation for the landing-system milestone prize, Astrobotic plans to test its “Griffin” lander this month at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California with help from Masten Space Systems. The Astrobotic team is an extension of Astrobotic Technology, Inc., a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University launched in 2008 to develop space robotics and facilitate planetary missions. Masten is itself an aerospace start-up that in 2009 won part of the Lunar Lander Challenge X PRIZE sponsored by NASA and Northrop Grumman.
In this first of three planned tests—funded through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program—Masten’s Xombie suborbital rocket will carry Astrobotic’s landing sensor package and software system to an altitude of 350 meters so the team can see how the technology works in flight.* In the second and third flights this spring Astrobotic’s landing sensors and software will actually guide Griffin as it lands. “That’s as close as we can get to a moon landing here on Earth,” says Astrobotic CEO John Thornton.
In preparation for claiming its milestone awards—and to put itself in the running for the $20-million grand prize—the Part-Time Scientists team is planning a large-scale mission simulation in cooperation with the Austrian Space Forum, the Vienna University of Technology Space Team and several other partners and sponsors this summer. The weeklong experiment—to be held at an iron-mining site in Austria’s Erzberg region—will test all critical parts of the team’s mission, including the landing, the deployment of their two “Asimov” moon rovers and other on-surface operations.
Part-Time Scientists is hoping to have its prototype camera ready for the imaging milestone award evaluation before midyear. The device will have low energy requirements while providing superior image quality, says team founder Robert Böhme, who works as a cybersecurity advisor in Berlin for the German government. At least half of Part-Time Scientists' 100 members are holding down full-time jobs at industrial firms or universities in addition to competing for the X PRIZE.
The camera’s basic design already meets the mooncast quality requirements but the team continues to evaluate whether the equipment’s optics can survive the high temperatures and other extreme conditions it will have to undergo during launch and deployment, Böhme says. The sensors and corresponding electronics must also be tested to determine whether they can function when exposed to high levels of radiation.
Money and momentum
Given the tens of millions of dollars needed to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, the teams realize that the milestone awards—and even the grand prize, for that matter—will not fully finance their projects. Rather, the awards serve as recognition for solid work and enable teams to show “sponsors, investors and everyone else that we're seriously developing hardware toward a mission to the moon,” Böhme says.
Astrobotic’s Thornton likewise acknowledges that it costs a lot more money to get to space than the Google Lunar X PRIZE is paying out. In this regard, the competition is just a starting point. The awards are an incentive, he says, adding, “A lot of the challenge is generating critical mass.”
Astrobotic has already begun to build up such critical mass. Earlier this month, Astroscale Pte., Ltd., contracted with Astrobotic Technology to send the Singapore-based company’s Lunar Dream time capsule—containing the popular Japanese sports drink, Pocari Sweat—onboard Astrobotic’s first lunar mission, planned for October 2015. If all goes according to plan, this same mission will capture X PRIZE’s grand award as well. “The Google Lunar X PRIZE mission will just be mission-one of many,” Thornton says.
Based on the successful response to this round of milestone prizes, X PRIZE is considering additional milestone awards for technical achievements after liftoff—en route to the moon—although the organization hasn’t provided any further details.

*Editor's Note (2/25/14): This sentence was edited after posting. The original stated, based on information obtained by Astrobotic, that the initial test flight would reach an altitude of four kilometers.