It's been more than 30 years since last we walked on the moon, 1972's Apollo 17 providing those historic footprints. China's Chang'e 3 lander and Yuto rover went back this spring, marking a long-awaited return to the lunar surface, but survived just a few weeks before suffering a tragic malfunction that left the rover completely immobile.
It's a brutal place, the moon, but it's time to try again, and the Google Lunar XPrize is making that happen. Google you're probably familiar with, while XPrize is a nonprofit organization that excels at finding solutions to extremely complicated problems through the use of public competitions. It was a public competition that inspired Charles Lindbergh to make the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris, and it was 2004's Ansari X Prize that resulted in the creation of SpaceShipOne and, ultimately, Virgin Galactic.
Now, 10 years later, another XPrize is headed outside the atmosphere. The Google Lunar XPrize (or GLXP) is a collection of cash rewards serving to encourage privately funded teams to launch a rover from Earth, send it to the moon, and move at least 500 meters across the surface, beaming high-definition photos and videos all along the way.
The combined $30 million in prizes have created something of a commercial space race, with over 30 teams initially vying to be the first to make this private moon shot. Along the way that number has whittled down to 18 active participants still hoping to send their creations skyward. Of those, XPrize has selected five that are eligible for a further $6 million in so-called milestone prizes.
Between now and September, these five teams will be demonstrating the various aspects of their technologies, including the ability to land on the moon (without crashing), drive across the lunar surface (without breaking), and successfully capture images of all that heavenly glory. These tests will take place here on Earth, but each successful completion will earn its team the funds required to get to the moon.
Here are the five teams eligible for the milestone prizes:
Astrobotic was born out of the think-tank that is Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. The team plans to launch its rover on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral and land in the Sea of Tranquility, not far from the Apollo 11 mission site. The 5-foot-tall rover will then motor its way over to inspect the remains of that historic landing, relying on solar panels for power and stereo HD cameras to send back 3D images to Earth.
Hakuto is a Japanese team with the same goal as the rest: to get to the moon and send back imagery. The team has tested an innovative rover design, one that uses a small, secondary, two-wheeled rover deployed from a larger, four-wheeled one. This is one of the many evolutions of rover that the team has experimented with, even giving away mini-rovers as part of a successful crowdfunding effort in 2012.
Team Indus (India)
Team Indus hails from New Delhi, India, and has decided to take the interesting approach of landing not one but two rovers on the moon, giving perhaps an added chance of success. The team plans to launch from Sriharikota, an island off the eastern coast of India.
Moon Express (US)
Moon Express is a Mountain View-based company with lofty goals: that of mining helium-3 from the lunar surface. It will be some years before such a thing can likely be accomplished, so consider winning the GLXP something of an interim goal -- proof for a potentially very lucrative concept, as it were.
Part-Time Scientists (Germany)
Part-Time Scientists was the first German team to enter the running, and has iterated through numerous rover designs since joining the competition in 2009, settling on a fairly traditional four-wheeled rover with an elevated head containing a triple camera array. The team has also been very open about its design and engineering process, giving numerous presentations covering the minutia involved with successfully landing a rover on the moon -- without government help.