Time Running Out to Win Google Lunar X Prize

Lunar rover (Credit: TeamIndus)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The clock is ticking for the remaining teams in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition.

Barring another extension, they have until March 31 to land a vehicle on moon and travel 500 meters across it to claim the $20 million first prize or $5 million second prize. It’s not clear whether any of them will make the deadline.

ispace, the company sponsoring Team HAKUTO of Japan, recently raised $90.2 million to fund a series of missions to the moon. The team also says that is small lunar rover, Sorato, is ready to be launched to the moon.

The issue is that Sorato is a secondary payload on a landing vehicle being developed by an Indian competitor, Team Indus. That team has been having difficulties raising enough money to complete its lander and rover and pay for a launch aboard an Indian PSLV booster. Due to mission constraints, the launch must take place by early March to provide sufficient time to win the prize.

Florida’s Moon Express says it is fully funded to launch a mission to the moon. However, recent comments by founder Bob Richards and Vice President Alain Berinstain indicate the company is unlikely to launch before the prize expires. Both have downplayed the importance of the competition, saying it is not crucial to the company’s business plan to deliver payloads to the moon on a commercial basis.

Moon Express is planning to launch on Rocket Lab’s new Electron booster, which has yet to make a successful flight test. The first attempt failed in May; a second launch is scheduled for later this month from New Zealand. If it is successful, a launch to the moon could be conducted in the next two months, providing the lunar hardware is available.

Team Synergy Moon is an international group also aiming to win the prize. Like Moon Express, it is dependent upon an Interorbital Systems booster that has yet to launch anything to space.

SpaceIL of Israel was desperately trying to raise millions of dollars at the end of 2017 to stay in business. It’s unclear if that effort was successful. Comments by SpaceIL officials indicated that even if the money was raised, the team would not be able to launch its rover in time to win the prize.

Google has sponsored the $30 million competition, which is being run by the XPRIZE Foundation, since 2007. The origin aim was for the prize to be won by the end of 2012, but the deadline has been extended repeatedly as teams had trouble lining up financing to build and fly their hardware.

Several teams are seeking an extension of the prize further into 2018. However, an XPRIZE official said last year that the March 31 deadline is firm.

Google has already spent millions of dollars on the prize. In 2015, the company and X Prize paid out $5.25 million to five competitors for achieving a series of milestones with their vehicles. The awards included: Astrobotic, $1.75 million; Moon Express, $1.25 million; Team Indus, $1 million; Part-Time Scientists, $750,000; and Team HAKUTO, $500,000.

Astrobotic and Part-Time Scientists have since dropped out of the competition. Both competitors have said they plan to continue their efforts to land payloads on the moon.

Last August, the XPRIZE and Google announced additional milestone prizes totaling $4.75 million as incentives to the teams to continue working on their lunar programs. The competition would award $1.75 million split evenly to any teams whose vehicles complete one orbit around the moon or enter a direct descent to the lunar surface. The $3 million soft landing milestone prize would be awarded to teams whose vehicles landed safely on the moon and transmitted data.

In addition to putting up the prize money, Google also pays XPRIZE a management fee each year to run the competition, whose total prize purse was originally set at $30 million. It’s not clear how much the fees have cost Google, but a general rule of thumb with X Prize competitions is that the cost of running the prizes can often equal the amount of money put up for them.

Even if no one wins the prize, the competition could still result in later moon missions by several of the competitors that have vowed to continue their efforts to commercialize lunar operations.

  • Paul451

    Would have been better off taking the approach of the DARPA/Army Grand Challenge/Urban Challenge. Incremental stepping stones on Earth with much lower prizes. For example, annual prizes for mass-limited rovers crossing certain terrain. Challenges of capability and duration. Later years you move to more and more hostile terrain; and multiple terrain types (one month long session in a nasty hot desert, the next (no mods allowed) in the high Arctic, then back again, until only one remains.)

  • ThomasLMatula

    Even better, Google simply should have bought a mission to the surface.

  • While I wouldn’t have run a competition like this (Google didn’t ask me), good luck to all the teams! May SOMEONE win.

  • windbourne

    See, that is because it was not your idea.
    In fact, it was not Google’s idea.
    Somebody else has already claimed that it ( and I suspect any idea at all ) were his.

    Hopefully, somebody DOES win this.

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s kind of what it tried to do. HD video from the surface and guess who controls the media rights? Google. They control them and get to monetize it. They take the profits from that, subtract their expenses, minus a cut for the X Prize, then the winning team(s) get a share of whatever is left.

    If it works it’s not a bad way to get an HD video camera to the moon while everyone else does all the work.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The GLXP is a pointless contest. It is not about landing on the Moon. It is simply a contest of who can raised the cash need for the ride to the Moon.

    Since in order to win one must come up with the funding for the ride to the Moon. If one have the funding than the paltry GLXP prize is meaningless.

    Astrobotic Technology from Carnegie Mellon seems to be going to the Moon on their own after dropping out of the GLXP folly. And they get to keep all the media and Intelletural properties.

  • marcusZ

    Haha, I know what you did there! 😉

  • Vladislaw

    LOL .. what ever happened to him .. have not seen his rants in ages…

  • windbourne

    I was wondering what he would say about FH? I’m guessing probably that musk can not do it, and that it will take Europe or Russia to do it, and that FH was his idea.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, and they were looking for a firm to provide it before Peter Diamandis talked Google into doing an X-Prize instead. That was about the time the X-Prize Cup folded without a new sponsor.

  • Chuck Lauer

    Actually, Peter Diamandis first tried to do this mission under the Blastoff flag a few years earlier by raising private capital and doing the mission as a global media event to make money. When Blastoff was unable to raise the $50-$100M needed to pay for the mission he then flipped the idea over to the X Prize Foundation and convinced the Google founders to sponsor it.