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The demise of the Google Lunar X Prize

31 January 2018

None of the teams will launch in time to claim the $20 million grand prize. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying.

Peter Diamindis
XPrize founder Peter Diamandis announces the lunar challenge in 2007. The contest has come to an end without a winner. Credit: XPRIZE

Editor’s note: This article provides an update to “Google Lunar X Prize hopefuls struggle to lift off,” which appears on page 31 of Physics Today’s February 2018 issue.

The Google Lunar X Prize has come to an unceremonious end. On 23 January, XPrize founder Peter Diamandis and CEO Marcus Shingles announced that the contest’s $20 million grand prize—which was to be awarded to the first privately funded team to land a spacecraft on the Moon, navigate 500 m across the lunar surface, and beam back high-definition images—will go unclaimed. None of the five teams remaining in the competition will be able to reach the Moon by the 31 March contest deadline, the prize organizers concluded.

The announcement came just days after reports surfaced that financial woes led one of the X Prize hopefuls, India-based Team Indus, to scuttle an agreement to launch its lunar lander aboard an Indian Space Research Organization rocket. That development effectively knocked two teams out of prize contention, since the Japan-based team, Hakuto, had previously arranged to send its rover to the Moon aboard Team Indus’s lunar lander. The remaining teams vying for the X Prize—the US’s Moon Express, Israel’s SpaceIL, and the international team Synergy Moon—were already facing delays that rendered a March launch improbable.

Some teams had indicated they would lobby for a few additional months of time to complete the lunar mission. XPrize had previously granted several such extensions, in all prolonging the contest more than three years beyond the 2014 deadline that was set when the prize was announced in 2007. “However, a collective decision was made last year that we would not extend this competition,” the prize’s senior director, Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, told Physics Today in an email. “The official end date was going to remain March 31, 2018.”

Failure to launch

XPrize has administered more than a dozen of its signature incentive contests over the past two decades, including competitions to develop fuel-efficient cars, improve understanding of ocean acidification, and teach artificially intelligent machines to deliver TED talks. But the Lunar X Prize was arguably the most ambitious of them all. The only country since the Cold War to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon is China, and its Yutu rover malfunctioned after wheeling less than 120 m in 2013. The prize’s $20 million grand prize was, and remains, the largest bounty the foundation has ever offered.

In addition to the grand prize, XPrize offered $10 million in consolation prizes, including milestone awards to be given for demonstrating landing, imaging, and roving capabilities and other mission-related technological achievements. The foundation doled out $6 million in milestone prizes over the course of the competition, but the grand prize remained beyond the contestants’ grasp.

XPrize officials attribute the teams’ difficulties to technological, fundraising, and regulatory challenges. As of last week, two teams, Moon Express and Synergy Moon, were still awaiting development of the rockets that would carry their lunar landers into space. At least two contestants, Team Indus and SpaceIL, had yet to raise the more than $50 million they needed to cover the costs of their respective lunar missions. Only one team, Moon Express, had publicly received approval from its government to send a payload to the Moon.

Onward and upward

The impending expiration of the Lunar X Prize hasn’t derailed the competitors’ lunar ambitions. “SpaceIL is committed to landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon, regardless of the terms or status of the Lunar X Prize,” said Eran Privman, the team’s CEO. “We are at the height of our efforts to raise the funds for this project and to prepare for launch.”

Israel-based SpaceIL says it will press on with its attempt to land a rover on the Moon, as illustrated here. Credit: SpaceIL

Moon Express also plans to press forward with a series of Moon missions in the coming years. “The competition was a sweetener in the landscape of our business case, but it’s never been the business case itself,” said Moon Express CEO Bob Richards, who added that his team will now focus on the core business goals of reducing the cost of going to the Moon, developing its commercial partnership with NASA, and unlocking lunar resources “for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space.”

Team Indus also announced its intention to mount multiple missions to space over the next five years. The team is exploring alternate launch providers and has indicated that it could be ready to launch within six months of obtaining a new launch contract.

Although teams Indus and Hakuto continue to discuss partnership opportunities, soon Hakuto may no longer require an extraterrestrial ride share. Hakuto’s managing company, Ispace, recently raised $90 million from investors to build its own lunar lander for a pair of future missions.

As for Synergy Moon, founding partner Kevin Myrick said his team “is still sending a mission to the Moon this year.” But he’d also like to see the $20 million prize revived. “It would be great,” he said, “if a way could be found to make the prize purse available without [time] restrictions.”

Indeed, contest organizers have given Synergy Moon and its fellow lunar aspirants a glimmer of a hope. The foundation says it is exploring a number of options to continue the contest in some form, including finding a new title sponsor or continuing the X Prize as a noncash competition.

But contest organizers are also okay with the possibility that the Lunar X Prize will go unclaimed. “It’s incredibly difficult to land on the Moon,” the foundation’s Diamandis and Shingles said in the 23 January announcement. “If every XPrize competition we launch has a winner, we are not being audacious enough.”

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