Sci-Tech

Google Lunar XPrize update: Five teams aim for the moon in 2017

Some of the competitors have announced contracts to go to the moon, and there may be more to come. We check in with some of the leaders in Tokyo to find out who will get there first.

TOKYO -- The race to the moon is more marathon than sprint, but for some entrants to the Google Lunar XPrize, the finish line is finally coming over the horizon.

The contest represents a $30 million pool of prizes, funded by Google and managed by the XPrize Foundation. A whopping $20 million goes to the first privately funded team to put a lander on the moon and cover a distance of 500 meters, all while sending high-definition video back to Earth. There's a $5 million prize for second place, and $5 million in bonuses. The goal is to kick-start the commercial space industry, while also inspiring a new generation of engineers and scientists.

Sixteen competitors remain, and last year we profiled a number of them as they quested for an additional set of so-called milestone prizes. This $6 million cash infusion was designed to keep the teams going through the incredibly expensive process of testing their hardware and, ultimately, securing a one-way ticket to space.

When a berth on something like a SpaceX Falcon 9 costs in the area of $20 million, these teams need as much encouragement as possible.

The nearest launch is still nearly two years away, but for the engineers that's an awfully short runway.

Each year, all the teams get together in a global symposium to share updates, to exchange information and, sometimes, to split the cost of a ticket to the moon. This year's symposium took place in Tokyo, Japan, and we stopped by to get some updates.

Teams Astrobotic and Hakuto

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The goal of Japan-based Hakuto, which we visited last year during rover testing on the sands of Hamamatsu, is not only to get the first rover to cover 500 meters on the lunar surface, but also to use a second rover to explore one of the so-called skylights that penetrate the surface of the moon. These caves, believed to have been formed by lava tubes, could possibly serve as the foundation for future manned habitats on the moon. Hakuto's smaller rover is designed to be lowered on a rope into one of these tubes.

Before that happens, the team wants to win. "The first priority is the XPrize," Hakuto's Takeshi Hakamada said.

Hakuto recently signed on with Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to get a ride to the moon. The two teams (plus another, Chile's Angelicvm) will share space on Astrobotic's lander. Exactly how they'll take turns driving off the lander remains to be seen, but Astrobotic CEO John Thornton is clear about what happens after that: "We hope to line all the rovers up and then drop the proverbial green flag."

If it does come down to a drag race, Thornton said his money actually is on the competition: "The Hakuto rover is the fastest right now." Hakamada estimates his team's rover, MoonRaker, is twice as fast as the competition.

Still, Thornton is pragmatic: Astrobotic has positioned itself to become "the DHL to the moon," offering easy and (relatively) low-cost delivery services.

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What is a low-cost delivery to the moon? Try $1.2 million (£783,000, or AU$1.7 million) per kilogram, a bargain compared to developing your own lander and signing your own launch contract. Astrobotic has signed on nine separate payloads, including MoonMail mementos and the cremated remains of wealthy space lovers.

For Hakuto, it's a significant investment. The team's two rovers weigh a combined seven kilograms. "We are trying to reduce mass very aggressively," said Hakamada. Is the cost motivating or just scary? "Probably both," he said with a laugh.

The long-term goal is lunar mining, something Hakamada estimates is still a decade away. For Astrobotic, the path to real revenue starts as early as 2017 when, if all goes to plan, the team's lander touches down on the moon.

Moon Express

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When last we visited the American Moon Express team, its donut-shaped lander was hovering over a simulated lunar surface at the Kennedy Space Center. Since then, much of the team's staff and facilities have moved to the former Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, acquired as part of the Space Florida initiative that is creating something of a coastal nexus for space startups.

Moon Express has signed a launch contract with Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab, which aims to use high-fidelity 3D printing to create rocket engines. That could vastly reduce the cost of getting into orbit. Moon Express hopes to launch in 2017.

Mike Vergalla, Moon Express project engineer, said it has whittled launch costs from an estimated $100 million to $15 million, but "that's still not enough." The goal is a $5 million launch, a bold target when NASA's next plan to put a rover on the moon, Resource Prospector, is expected to cost $250 million.

But, he said, there also are plenty of other complexities to consider, such as: "If you just want to take a picture of the Earth you need a license from NOAA."

The launch contract has reinvigorated the team, Vergalla said, as others also get closer to their own launches. "You're going to see, in the next three to five years, a number of players on the moon."

Right now, Moon Express is focused on getting its technology ready to go. "The launch vehicle is the cornerstone. Everything else follows that."

Part Time Scientists

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"We actually have a lot of full-time scientists now," said Robert Boehme, CEO of the German Part Time Scientists team, joking that perhaps the name isn't so accurate any longer. The company is up to 11 full-time employees, out of 35 total. When last we visited, the team was testing the optics of its four-wheeled rover on a simulated lunar surface.

Since then, the team has signed a major deal with Audi, the Germany automaker taking the rover's four-wheel drive design and rebranding it Quattro. It's a heaven-sent marketing opportunity.

"The funding gives you more time to think," said Boehme. "We're not really the perfect guys for having a long-term business plan. It has to happen along the way." The latest pivot involves the creation of high-quality, space-grade parts using 3D printing.

The plan is to receive a digital model of a given part, print it out using aluminum or titanium, run it through tests to prove space worthiness and then deliver the finished part far faster, and far cheaper, than the client could do it themselves.

But the primary goal is still winning the Google Lunar XPrize. Boehme hopes the team will announce a launch contract in early 2016. "If we do it for the $30 million prize and it works, that is a business plan on its own."

SpaceIL

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SpaceIL

SpaceIL, from Israel, made waves this year when it, too, announced a launch contract for 2017. "We still have a long way to go," said CEO Eran Privman, "but it gave a strong signal to our partners, to our vendors."

Privman is referring to one of the main problems teams have faced: getting respect. Despite immense growth in the commercial space industry, many treat the competition participants as curiosities more likely to disappear than land on the moon. However, signing a formal launch contract with SpaceX to blast off in the second-half of 2017 certainly opened the eyes of many.

That keeps the team well within the running, but according to Privman, the race isn't everything. "Being first is not one of our parameters, but it is more than nice to have," he said. Still, he's confident. "When we land on the moon, we will look and see that we are the first." SpaceIL also aims to inspire children in Israel and elsewhere to be scientists and engineers.

SpaceIL hopes to launch from SpaceX's facilities in Vandenberg, California. The transit to the moon will take approximately two months. Upon landing, the craft will recharge its batteries using solar panels, then lift off again and hop 500 meters in a bid for Google Lunar XPrize success. "The major objective is soft landing and sending footage," said Privman. "The hop is mainly for the competition."