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.