The moon and Earth.
Getting a spacecraft to land on the moon is both expensive and difficult. To date only three countries, Russia, the U.S. and most recently, China, have done so, and this through government programs.
It's with this daunting task in mind that teams of students and professionals globally began the challenge in 2007 of trying to send a small spacecraft to the surface of the moon and have it, or a deployed rover, travel a distance of no less than 500 meters and return high definition video and imagery.
Should a team achieve this goal before the end of 2015 they will win the Google Lunar XPRIZE grand prize of $20 million and potential more through bonuses.
However, as each team has discovered, winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) is an incredibly difficult task. And it's not just the technical challenges they must surmount, their primary problem is finances, or lack thereof.
The original challenge deadline was December 31, 2012 for the grand prize and the end of 2014 for a reduced prize if no one had succeeded by the end of 2012.
Faced with the reality of the situation, the XPRIZE organizers, with Google's nod of approval, extended the deadline. A further extension of the deadline is not out of the question either.
To help the competition along financially, and to recognize the technological achievements, the Milestone Prizes were added last year. SpaceRef broke the news of this by publishing a draft of the new guidelines.
Three categories of Milestone Prizes were created; Landing System, Mobility Subsystem, and Imaging Subsystem. The value would be up to $6 million.
Today the GLXP announced the finalists eligible for the Milestone Prizes:
- Landing System Milestone Prize: $1,000,000 per team -- based on the hardware and software that enables a soft-landing on the moon (Astrobotic, Moon Express, Team Indus)
- Mobility Subsystem Milestone Prize: $500,000 per team -- based on the mobility system that allows the craft to move 500 meters after landing (Astrobotic, Moon Express, Hakuto, Part-Time-Scientists)
- Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize: $250,000 per team -- based on producing "Mooncasts" consisting of high-quality images and video on the lunar surface (Astrobotic, Moon Express, Part-Time-Scientists, Team Indus)
As well, the masters of the coin, Google, upped the maximum prize purse to $40 million. This was done so that the possible $6 million in Milestone Prizes would not be subtracted from the grand prize or second place prize money.
With today's announcement the prize money is as follows:
- Grand Prize: $20 million
- Second Place: $5 million
- Milestone Prizes: Up to $6 million
- Bonuses: Up to $4 million
- Promoting diversity in the field of space exploration: $1 million
However this adds up to $36 million. The GLPX said today that they are "also considering additional Milestone Prizes for technical achievements after lift-off on the way to the moon." Presumably this pot of money could be worth up to $4 million.
Today's selected teams have until September to complete the milestones under the scrutiny of the judges.
"Every strategy presented to us was imaginative, forward-thinking and ambitious, which made it difficult to choose only a handful to proceed to the Accomplishment Round," said David Swanson, chair of the Google Lunar XPRIZE judging panel. "As there are increasing fiscal constraints threatening the ability of governments to fund exploration, the need to recognize the bold technical achievements of these privately-funded teams is greater than ever."
Today's announcement potentially gives two of the competitors, Astrobotic and Moon Express, a leg up on the competition as they are eligible to win up to $1.75 million each though Team Indus could win as much as $1.25 million.
Astrobotic is one of the leading contenders in the GLXP and plan to launch their spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in October 2015.
Commenting to SpaceRef, John Thornton, Astrobotic's CEO said "The Milestone Prize selection is very timely and well-aligned with the development plan toward flight that we have been methodically pursuing for quite some time. It is a great opportunity to bring more revenue in the door just as our technical development is ramping up for mission, and moves us one step closer to landing our customer payloads on the lunar surface."
While the finalists stand to gain some financial relief for their efforts, the financial mountain they must scale is still daunting, especially with the clock ticking.
Should Astrobotic, Moon Express, Team Indus and the Part-Time-Scientists meet all of their milestones, the biggest reward may not be the much needed cash infusion, but rather the bona fides to go out and try and snare a large financial backer to take them to the finish line.
Currently, based on our sources, no team has the financial backing to build, launch and then operate their spacecraft on the moon.
It should be noted that todays finalists include only those who opted to compete for these prizes. Teams had the option to opt out and not compete. I can only think of two reasons why a team would opt out; 1) The wanted a competitive advantage by not revealing where they were with respect to their program or 2) They new they couldn't qualify for the Milestone Prize competition. The latter is more likely which suggests the state of their programs is poor.
When asked about the state of Astrobotic's fundraising efforts Thornton said "to date, Astrobotic has funded operations and development with a mix of investment, sponsorships, and NASA technical contracts. As we approach mission, we are ramping up customer payload sales." He went on to further say "(we) are currently talking with two dozen groups around the world (including other GLXP teams) who are interested in flying with us. There is a vibrant market for the affordable lunar access that Astrobotic enables for governments, universities, and commercial ventures."
Notwithstanding Thornton's obvious enthusiasm, the next six months are critical for the remaining teams. Those who perform and win Milestone Prize money will have at least one last chance to get the backing they need to take their aspirations to the next level. Perhaps even one or two of the other teams will step-up as well. But should Milestone Prize money be left on the table, then heading into 2015 the GLXP organizers will be faced with a tough choice, stay the course or modify the rules again to extend the deadline and or offer more incentives.
The Google Lunar XPRIZE just rebooted, again, will it be enough?