So far, the only spacecraft that have landed on the moon were sent on missions carried out by national superpowers. The United States, Russia and China are the only entities with the ambition and budgets to accomplish this task.
The Google Lunar XPRIZE competition is a race for the first privately funded team to successfully land a spacecraft on the surface of the moon, maneuver the craft a distance of 500 m and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. Completing these tasks will earn the team $20 million. The competitors are approaching the last stage of the competition, with mission launches scheduled for late 2017 or early 2018.
The rationale for the competition lies in the promise that the moon is a stepping stone to the rest of space. By limiting the competition to privately funded teams, XPRIZE hopes to spur commercial investment in the technology required to provide reliable low-cost access to the moon. An affordable way to get to the moon will encourage private industry to expand activities on and around the moon.
Exploration of the moon will provide the technical training and experience necessary for humanity to venture further into the solar system. On the moon, humans can learn how to detect and gather extraterrestrial resources and how to build safe habitats for people to live in.
To win the Lunar XPRIZE teams must adhere to a set of mission requirements describing various conditions the teams’ crafts must meet including landing, mobility, data transmission and payload requirements.
The mobility requirement states that the 500 m path the craft takes can be above, below or on the lunar surface along a straight line or through a series of waypoints.
Two “Mooncasts,” each eight minutes in length, must be transmitted back to Earth from the surface of the moon, one after lunar arrival and the other after the craft completes its journey along the surface. The Mooncasts must contain high definition video with a resolution of at least 720p along with near real-time video that can optionally be in a lower resolution. The Mooncasts must also include images showing the craft and payload, along with a panoramic image with a 360 degree view of the landing or mission completion sites.
The craft must be capable of receiving up to 100 kb of data provided by XPRIZE and retransmitting it back to Earth. The craft must also carry a payload consisting of a data disk and a commemorative plaque.Teams must be privately funded with no more than 10 percent of total mission costs provided by the government.
Mission requirements must be completed by the deadline of March 31, 2018. Mission details must be reviewed and approved by an international panel of highly qualified and impartial judges. This includes an assessment of teams’ compliance with the mission requirements through a review of teams’ mission plans six months before launch; a review of the planned paths taken by craft on the moon; and observation of the final spacecraft checkout and launch.
The competition’s prize purse consists of a grand prize and second prize, along with various milestone and bonus prizes. The grand prize of $20 million will be awarded to the first team to complete all mission requirements. The second team to accomplish the competition’s tasks will receive $5 million.
Teams that complete milestones along the road to the ultimate goal will receive interim award money. Milestone prize money will be subtracted from grand and second place prize awards if teams continue on to win those prizes. A lunar arrival milestone prize of $1.75 million will be awarded to teams whose spacecraft complete one orbit around the moon or enter a direct descent approach.
In addition, a soft landing prize of $3 million will be awarded to teams whose spacecraft sends data proving it soft-landed on the moon’s surface. Google has already awarded $5.25 million in milestone prize money to teams that have demonstrated technical progress, including hardware and software, in three categories: landing, mobility and imaging.
A pool of $4 million is available for bonus prizes for teams that accomplish additional tasks on the moon beyond the mission requirements. An Apollo heritage prize of $4 million will be awarded to the team that sends a Mooncast with eight minutes of video from the site of an Apollo landing that includes visuals of a substantial portion of the Apollo craft. If a team can move its vehicle at least 5 km on the surface of the moon, it will receive a range bonus prize of $2 million. Finally, finding scientific evidence of the presence of water on the moon will earn a team a bonus of $4 million.
Five teams are moving forward to the last stage of the competition after receiving verification and approval of their launch contracts.
SpaceIL, an Israeli team founded in 2011, was the first team to receive approval for its lunar mission after signing a launch contract for a flight in late 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A nonprofit organization, SpaceIL plans to complete the mobility requirement of the competition with a space hop maneuver instead of with a rover vehicle traveling along the moon’s surface. In the space hop maneuver, the spacecraft will land on the surface of the moon and take off with its remaining fuel to land a second time 500 meters away.
Moon Express is a privately funded commercial space company founded in California in 2010. Moon Express has signed a launch contract with Rocket Lab USA for three missions between 2017 and 2020. Moon Express’s Expedition 1 Lunar Scout is featured in the video at the top of this article performing a space hop maneuver to fulfill the mobility requirement of the competition. The company’s ultimate goal is to mine the moon for resources.
Synergy Moon is an international team based in California. The team will launch its spacecraft with Interorbital Systems’ Neptune rocket and land a rover to travel along the lunar surface. Interorbital Systems hopes to provide low-cost commercial space launch operations by using rockets built from modular, standardized units.
TeamIndus, an Indian team, also hopes to land a rover on the moon after launching it aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota in late 2017. It successfully demonstrated its landing technology to win the $1 million landing milestone prize.
Hakuto is a Japanese team operated by iSpace Inc. based in Tokyo. The team will be launching its 4 kg rover aboard the PSLV rocket under a ridesharing agreement with Team Indus. Additionally, iSpace is developing micro-robotic technology to scout for and mine resources on the moon.