Is the Google Lunar X Prize Kaput?

Lunar rover (Credit: TeamIndus)

It appears highly likely that the decade-old Google Lunar X Prize will end on March 31 without a winner following reports out of India that Team Indus has pulled out of the race. The Ken reports that

The launch contract that TeamIndus signed with Antrix Corporation—the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)—in December 2016, in pursuit of its $30-million Google Lunar XPRIZE goal, has been cancelled. Multiple sources within Isro confirmed the news….

Conservatively speaking, the price tag for the PSLV chartered launch alone is said to be upwards of $20 million; the cost of building and testing the moon rover is several million more. It’s learnt TeamIndus couldn’t pony up funds to pay Antrix beyond the initial signing amount. “Isro has cancelled the contract for a lack of compliances and payment issues,” says a person who is close to these developments. He says, “Rahul [Narayan, co-founder TeamIndus] has spoken to all on the floor recently and informed all of Isro’s decision of pulling out of the mission”. TeamIndus did not respond to questions sent by email. Without denying the news, a spokesperson for the company said, “As a company, we’d not comment on this”.

The cancellation of the contract also appears to eliminate a Japanese competitor, Team HAKUTO, which was sending its rover along on the flight.

The Ken‘s report has been independently confirmed by other Indian media outlets.

Three other teams — Moon Express, SpaceIL and Team Synergy Moon — had also met the requirement of signing a launch contract by the end of 2016 to stay in the competition. However, it appears unlikely that any of them will launch by the time the competition ends on March 31.

The prize offers $20 million for the first private team to land a vehicle on the moon, travel 500 meters across it, and send back high-definition video. A $5 million prize is available for the second team to accomplish that goal.

In addition to not being able to afford a launch, Team Indus was also facing problems assembling a spacecraft in time to meet the deadline.

In July, The Ken wrote about how the space startup was late in reaching its technical milestones. While it put up a confident face and blamed nearly everything on scarce funding, it was evident to a few people, both inside and outside the company, that even if it had managed to raise funds, meeting the 31 March mission completion deadline would be nearly impossible from a technical and logistical perspective.

At the GLXP review meeting in early October, while addressing the press the judges said that TeamIndus was on step 1 of a 10-step countdown, and in the right direction. Later on, senior employees say, “[the judges] told us on the floor that while TeamIndus was in the right direction, the moon mission launch may not happen soon”.

XPRIZE announced the competition in 2007 with the deadline set for the end of 2012. The global recession greatly slowed the progress of the 32 teams that initially registered for the competition. The deadline was extended several times as competitors dropped out; by the end of 2016, only five teams were left.

SpaceIL of Israel subsequently dropped out of the competition due to funding woes.  At the end of last year, it was desperately trying to raise $30 million to stay in operation. Even if the funds were raised, officials said they wouldn’t be in a position to launch by the end of March.

Moon Express has been viewed as a strong contender to win the race. In recent public comments, Founder Bob Richards and Vice President Alain Berinstain have indicated Moon Express would not be launching in time to win the prize. They also downplayed the prize’s importance to the company’s business plan.

Synergy Moon is an international team that signed a launch contract with Interorbital Systems of Mojave, Calif. However, Interorbital has yet to flight test a booster capable of placing a satellite into orbit. The company did complete an atmospheric test of a smaller booster several years ago.