Google Lunar XPrize: The world's next great space race

Eighteen teams are in a race to get to the moon, with a $30 million payoff. This summer, we'll travel the world and follow five of those teams' final tests and preparations. Here's a taste of what's to come.

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When innovation stalls, sometimes it just needs a little push. A bit of force applied in the right direction and then, momentum imparted, the rest takes care of itself. That push can come from many sources, but one tends to be the most effective: money.

It was a monetary prize that spurred Charles Lindbergh to strap into the Spirit of St. Louis and become the first to cross the Atlantic in one shot. It was a monetary prize that encouraged Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipOne, ultimately spawning Virgin Galactic. And, next year, it will be a monetary prize that puts the first non-government-funded rover on the moon. Or, possibly, multiple rovers.

The new competition is called the Google Lunar XPrize. And, like the Ansari XPrize from a decade ago that greatly accelerated the race toward commercial space travel, this new competition is already bringing the same increase in pace to lunar surveying and exploration. Along the way, it's giving the members of 18 independent teams around the world the challenge and opportunity of a lifetime.

Creating an XPrize

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Kbh3rd -- Wikimedia Commons

XPrize calls itself an "innovation engine." Its website states: "Rather than throw money at a problem, we incentivize the solution and challenge the world to solve it." Its first competition was the Ansari XPrize, and the problem was: how do we kickstart the commercial space industry? Scaled Composites won in 2004 at the Mojave Air and Space Port, a $10,000,000 check handed over after the team launched its craft to the edge of space twice within the span of two weeks.

That's so far been the organization's most famous competition, but there have been dozens more, typically funded by charitable individuals or organizations. In 2010, Edison2's Very Light Car won the Progressive Insurance Automotive XPrize, a $5 million award for the first car to manage more than 100 MPG. However, that car still had to be built in such a way that would ultimately allow for its eventual mass-production. A year later, Elastec/American Marine won the $1 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup Xchallenge by developing technology that skims oil from the surface of the ocean three times faster than the previous best solution to the problem.

It was back in 2007 that the organization introduced the Google Lunar XPrize, a $30 million purse of prizes for the first independent team to land a rover on the moon and move 500 meters or more across the lunar surface, all while sending back high-definition video to those of us still stuck on Earth. It's been nearly seven years and, finally, we're almost ready for launch.

Countdown to ignition

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XPrize

Teams from around the world were invited to enter to compete in the Google Lunar XPrize. 33 of those made the cut to become official entrants. But, over the years between then and now, many of those would drop out. Others would others join forces and resources, resulting in a pool of 18 current teams that are still in the running.

All the remaining teams face the same engineering challenges in getting their landers on the moon, but ask what their biggest hurdle is overall and you'll hear the same thing: funding. Getting something into space is not cheap, with costs easily spiralling into the tens of millions of dollars for the launch alone. Getting there without the full backing of a wealthy government entity makes it all the more difficult. (Teams can accept up to 10 percent of their total funding from a government entity, but no more.)

To help with that part of the equation, XPrize created what are called Milestone Prizes. These are a sort of interim competition, a $6 million pool to be paid out to the teams capable of proving to XPrize judges that their landers can land, their rovers can rove, and their imaging systems are capable of capturing the unique visual essence of the lunar surface.

The tests

18 teams are still in the running for the Google Lunar X, and any of them is eligible for the prize should they get to the moon first. However, five of those teams applied and were selected for a series of Milestone tests, taking place through the summer of 2014. In each of these tests, one or more judges from XPrize will evaluate the team before, during, and after the test execution, determining whether the test was a pass or a failure.

The tests fall within one of three categories:

Landing

Up to three teams can win this $1 million prize, awarded when the team successfully demonstrates its ability to safely touch down on the lunar surface. This includes propulsion systems, landing modules, and the sorts of software and integrated intelligence required for a spacecraft to land itself on the moon. After all, with a three-second delay for any signal sent to the moon, remote control isn't a great option.

Mobility

As many as four teams can win this $500,000 prize for demonstrating the ability to cover the required distance of 500 meters on the moon. While many of the teams are using rovers, some are choosing instead to hop or fly across the lunar surface. So, this test entails the successful demonstration of the team's lunar package covering that distance.

Camera

Finally, this $250,000 prize can be won by up to four teams, as they show off their ability to capture high-definition imagery from the lunar surface. This may seem easy, what with the preponderance of HD cameras in smartphones and everything else, but developing a system that can work in the vacuum of space and the incredible contrast on the moon requires some specialized hardware and software.

The Milestone teams

Astrobotic -- USA

Astrobotic Logo
XPrize
Team Astrobotic is based in Pittsburgh, PA, and it will come as no surprise that it has its roots firmly planted in Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading robotics centers in the world. The team will likely make use of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to get into orbit, and is currently testing with a Masten lander to touch down on the lunar surface. Interestingly though, this team wants to be something of a host to other teams -- not just carrying its own rover to the moon, but providing space for other teams' rovers to catch a ride.


Hakuto -- Japan

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XPrize
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 design that the team has experimented with, even giving away mini-rovers as part of a successful crowd-funding effort in 2012.


Indus -- India

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XPrize

Team Indus hails from New Delhi, India, and will likewise be deploying two rovers on the moon. However, each here will be independent and fully functional. Think of it as extra redundancy. The team plans to launch from Sriharikota, an island off the eastern coast of India.


Moon Express -- USA

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XPrize

Moon Express is a Mountain View-based company with lofty goals, including 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

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XPrize

Part-Time Scientists was the first German team to enter the running, and has iterated through numerous rover designs since joining the competition, 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 minutiae involved with successfully landing a rover on the moon -- without government help, of course. The team has, however, received the help of an Austrian iron mine, which has served as a testing ground for its rover.


More to come

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XPrize

Through the summer of 2014, we'll be bringing you in-depth profiles of each of these teams, plus the other competitors. We'll also have footage and reports filed from around the globe as each team makes its way through the Milestone tests ahead of ultimately landing on the moon by the end of 2015. It's going to be quite an adventure, and we can't wait for you to join us.

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About the author

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

 

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