Almost ten years after Google and X Prize teamed up to announce the Google Lunar X Prize, we have official verification of five finalists in the “new space race” of the 21st century. Just this week, Google announced the five teams of engineers and innovators who are still in the game for a grand prize of $20 million.
Before we meet the teams, here’s some quick background information on the Lunar X Prize, and the challenges facing the competitors.
What is the Google Lunar X Prize?
The X Prize Foundation has a simple mission: to stimulate innovation. And with the Lunar X Prize, they wanted to create an incentive for the most innovative engineers out there to develop low cost ways of overcoming some of the biggest challenges in space travel. The foundation partnered with Google to sponsor the prize purse, a total of over $30 million.
This is the new space race. Privately funded teams around the world have been racing to develop a way to fulfill the requirements of the program ever since 2007. What are those requirements, you ask? The teams must build a robot that will:
- Land on the Moon.
- Travel at least 500 meters on the Moon’s surface.
- Send high-definition images and videos back to Earth.
Considering that, at the time the contest was first announced, no operational vehicle had been on the Moon since 1976, those tasks are no small feat. It’s not literally rocket science, but it’s pretty darn close!
The first team who accomplishes these three tasks will win the Google Lunar X Prize grand prize of $20 million. There is also a second place prize of $5 million and an additional $5 million available for “bonus prizes”.
The final five in the Google Lunar X Prize
Of the more than 30 teams that originally signed on to the challenge, only five contenders remain. Up until the end of 2016, there were 16 teams still in the game, but they missed a critical deadline. The competition’s extended deadline was contingent upon having verified launch contracts by the end of last year.
SpaceIL, the Israeli team, was the first to secure a contract on October 7, 2016. The US team, Moon Express, was the second verified team on December 8. The remaining three teams managed to have their launch contracts with different rocket agencies before the December 31 deadline, by the skin of their teeth.
Now, here’s some information on each of the five remaining teams, their lunar craft and how they’ll be getting into outer space this year.
Team SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to bring Israel into space for the first time and stimulate interest in the STEM fields in the younger generations. Aside from the three engineers who founded the organization and the current CEO, Team SpaceIL has almost 30 full-time employees plus many more volunteers. The SpaceIL craft is a “nanocraft”, using special technology to create a relatively cheap spacecraft that is about the size of a dishwasher. Instead of meeting the 500 m movement requirement as a rover on the surface, the craft will “hop” after landing using residual fuel, and land again at the required distance. The SpaceIL nanocraft is set to launch at the end of this year on an American SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Moon Express, USA
Moon Express is a lunar transportation and data services company based in Silicon Valley. A guiding principle of theirs is that the Moon is the Earth’s eighth continent, and they believe that the resources housed there will be critical for the future of humanity. The privately funded company employs more than 40 people and is growing almost as fast as their technological advances. Moon Express’ lunar craft has a launch contract with Rocket Lab USA, with the first launch scheduled for 2017 as per Google Lunar X Prize rules.
Syngery Moon, international
Team Synergy Moon is the fruit of a partnership between InterPlanetary Ventures, the Human Synergy Project, and Interorbital Systems. The greater mission of Synergy Moon is to foster international cooperation in space exploration and technology, and they exemplify that mission with working groups in more than 15 countries. The team will use a lunar-direct launch of an Interorbital Systems modular NEPTUNE rocket to carry their Lunar X Prize lunar lander and at least one rover to the surface of the Moon this year.
In addition to being the fourth verified finalist in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, TeamIndus also received one of the preliminary “milestone prizes”, winning $1 million for developments in soft landing technology. They are a for-profit organization and hope that GLXP will be their first step towards establishing a global innovation brand as the first ever privately funded space exploration mission. The team has a launch contract for December 28 of this year with the Indian Space Research Organization using a polar satellite launch vehicle.
The fifth and final team that is still in the running for the Google Lunar X Prize, Hakuto, also won a milestone prize of $500,000 for mobility technology. In case you’re wondering, there’s a story behind the team’s name. The word “Hakuto” means “white rabbit”, and comes from Japanese folklore similar to our “man in the moon”; in the Japanese tale, the shape of a rabbit can be seen on the surface of the Moon. The Japanese team announced that it signed a ride-share partnership with one of their competitors, Team Indus, to carry its 4-wheeled rover to the Moon. This team is quite ambitious: besides the $20 million grand prize, they have their eyes on a bonus prize for moving their rover 3 times the required distance.
Google Lunar X Prize, ten years in the making
It’s only January, and the launch dates for these teams aren’t scheduled until the second half of 2017. In the meantime, we can imagine that they are scrambling to get as much done, tested and perfected as possible before the big day arrives. By the end of this year, we may finally have a winner to the decade-old Google Lunar X Prize. Who do you think will take home the grand prize?