Today was the official deadline for the defunct Google Lunar X Prize competition, an international contest to send the first private spacecraft to the Moon. There is no winner; nobody came to the moon on time. But many of the teams that competed in the Google Lunar X Award say they are still moving forward, even without the promise of millions of dollars in prizes.
The rules of competition were relatively simple: build a robotic lander, using mainly private money, which can land softly on the Moon. Once there, the spacecraft had to explore the lunar surface and then send videos and images to Earth. The winner was promised $ 20 million and the second place team would have won $ 5 million. Other teams may have received extra money for special tasks such as completing a full orbit around the Moon or filming video of an old Apollo landing site.
Even without Google cash, there are still other incentives
Last year, there were only five finalist teams in the competition, out of the original 29 teams that signed up for the challenge. The last five had verified launch contracts with rocket companies to potentially launch their spacecraft before the deadline. Although none took off today, some of the finalists and semifinalists still have contracts to launch in the coming years. Most teams are still developing their landing modules, but none have yet shown any complete hardware. That has not diminished their enthusiasm or confidence.
The prize pool was Google's money, so the company kept its $ 30 million. But even without Google cash, there are still other incentives. The Trump administration recently ordered NASA to send humans to the lunar surface again. And the president's budget request for the space agency in 2019 proposes a long-term plan to partner with commercial companies, in order to develop new small and medium-sized lunar modules. Therefore, there is still money to do for Uncle Sam, even if Google is out of the picture.
Of course, there is the glory. Only the spacecraft financed by the government have landed on the Moon; No private company has yet managed the task. Perhaps one of the teams of the Google Lunar X Prize can still make it happen. Here is your guide on who they are and what they do.
SpaceIL, a nonprofit organization based in Israel, was the first team to obtain a verified launch contract for its lander, a vehicle that is designed to land and then jump across the lunar surface. The company says it will launch the spacecraft on a future SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in late 2018.
SpaceIL has been building its landing module inside a clean room at Israel Aerospace Industries, the leading aerospace manufacturer in that country. Engineers recently added the engine and fuel tanks to the body of the spacecraft, and also tested the lander's cameras in a vacuum chamber. (That's to simulate the space environment, according to SpaceIL CEO, Ido Anteby).
The landing module of SpaceIL under construction in IAIImage: SpaceIL
Earlier this year, the organization admitted that it still did not have all the money it needed to launch its lander. But Anteby says the team has enough to move forward for the time being, and that they are still raising funds. He is optimistic. "At this advanced stage, nothing will prevent us from reaching the Moon before the end of 2018," Anteby said in a statement emailed to The Verge.
Astrobotic withdrew from the X Prize competition in December 2016, when they realized they could not meet the deadline. But the Pittsburgh-based company still plans to send its spacecraft to the Moon, and has some impressive business partners. Last year, Astrobotic signed a contract to launch its first lunar lander, called Peregrine, on an Atlas V rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance. The team is also working with the aircraft manufacturer Airbus to make the legs for the lander. Oh, and NASA awarded Astrobotic a contract to develop a small explorer who can also explore the Moon.
An artistic representation of the pilgrim landing module in the image of Moon: Astrobotic
If all goes well, the company's first pilgrim landing module will carry up to 584 pounds (265 kilograms) of scientific packages to the surface of the Moon. So far, 11 groups from six different nations have agreed to fly instruments on the first flight of the Peregrine, and there is more open space, according to CEO John Thornton. Originally, Astrobotic expected to fly the lander in 2019, but Thornton says the target date for the mission is now mid-2020. The company is still looking for additional funds for the flight.
The goal of Astrobiotic is to complete a critical review of the Peregrine design before the end of the year. After that, the construction of the landing module will begin. If all goes well, this flight will be the first step of Astrobotic to establish a lunar delivery service. The company wants to expand its landing modules so they can deliver even more goods to the Moon. "We are currently leading the world in sales and development of payload," Thornton tells The Verge. "We have spent a huge amount of energy building that payload market."
Moon Express aims to extract the lunar surface, either for water or minerals to sell. And last year, the company showed the graphics of a planned fleet of landing modules for that to happen, called MX Robotic Explorers. But first, Moon Express plans to launch a prototype spacecraft, called MX-1E. The company has a contract with the US space laboratory Rocket Lab to launch the tiny probe in an experimental rocket called the electron that flew out of New Zealand.
The MX-1E mission is fully funded, according to Moon Express. And the company had a big impact in 2016 when it announced that it had obtained the approval of the US government. UU To send the MX-1E lander to the Moon, the first time a private company had received permission.
An artistic representation of Moon Express & # 39; MX-1E landerImage: Moon Express
Even so, Moon Express has not yet shown any hardware for the MX-1E. In July, the company said it was testing parts of the lander at its facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida, but there have been no updates since. Moon Express did not respond to two recent email requests from The Verge. In January, after the XPrize competition ended, CEO Bob Richards had something to say: "We continue to focus on our core business plans for the collapse of the cost of access to the Moon, our partnership with NASA and our long-term vision of unlocking lunar resources for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space. "
For a while, TeamIndus had a solid trip for its lunar lander: the Indian rocket, the Polar satellite launch vehicle. But once the Indian team realized that they would not reach the X Award deadline, they decided to cancel their contract with the space agency and look elsewhere. "We had to slow down due to the challenges in raising funds," says The Verge Rahul Narayan, CEO of TeamIndus.
"We believe that we are at the right time and in the right place to continue doing what we have been doing."
Now, TeamIndus is developing new plans for the next five years. The company is still developing its landing module, although it is making some design changes. And he's looking for a new trip, too. Narayan says the company is in talks with two international launch providers and expects to launch it in 2019. Once an agreement is reached with a launch company, TeamIndus will begin to assemble all the parts of the lander. "We are not in a position to put it together today and wait for the launch date," says Narayan. "At some point in the next quarter we will have a launch window."
In terms of money, the company continues to raise funds and also offers rides in its lander for organizations that want to send equipment to the Moon. "We believe that we are in the right place and the right place to continue doing what we have been doing: building a spacecraft that can orbit the Moon and then land on the Moon," says Narayan.
Hakuto / ispace
The Japanese Hakuto team had already built their lunar rover, Sorato, before the X Prize deadline, but everything was arranged with nowhere to go. The team had agreed to send their vehicle in the landing module from Team Indus, so the group depended on the Indian team that was flying before today.
Hakuto was able to raise more than $ 90 million in funds during the competition and has adopted a new name: ispace. The group has offices in Tokyo, Luxembourg and the United States. He has another thing to do: Japan is betting heavily on space. The country's prime minister, Shinzō Abe, announced this month that the government will allocate close to one billion dollars to finance new space companies. Ispace hopes to capitalize that investment.
An artistic representation of a lunar / rover combo that ispace hopes to build Image: ispace
That could help ispace as it continues to manufacture miniature rovers, and has plans to build a fleet of landers as well. "For ispace, the Google Lunar X Prize competition was our starting point," said Takeshi Hakamada, CEO of ispace, in a statement emailed to The Verge. "It allowed us to develop our main strength: the miniaturization of space robotics." That knowledge will help ispace build a low-cost lunar transport system, he said.
PT Scientists, a semifinalist team from Germany, plans to bring wireless Internet to the Moon. The group recently announced a partnership with Vodafone and Nokia to place a 4G base station on the lunar surface. PT scientists say it needs the configuration, since it will send a large amount of hardware to the Moon on its first trip: a lander and two mobile devices that it has been building in partnership with Audi. A 4G base station will facilitate the transmission of data between the spacecraft and back to Earth.
PT scientists hope to launch this hardware in 2019 on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the company says there is a contract for the mission. The Verge e-mailed PT scientists asking about the development of the spacecraft and the funds, but the company declined to comment. However, a spokesman said he expects announcements in the coming months.
We have not heard a sound from the international Synergy Moon team, one of the five finalists of the X Prize, since the beginning of February. Like Hakuto, the team decided to fly their rover in the landing module of TeamIndus. No one responded to an email request about the company's plans. The team's website does not offer much more information either.