What Happened to the Google Lunar X-Prize Contestants?

With the renewed interest in the Moon due to the recent landing of China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft, we did a quick check on the Google Lunar X-Prize plans to see how the teams were getting on despite the official competition being over. Way back on 13 September 2007 an X-Prize was announced, with Google’s sponsorship, for the first team to land on the Moon, drive/fly 500m and return high definition imagery. Unfortunately no one claimed the prize, even after a few extensions, but that doesn’t mean that everything stopped. A few of the teams were close and managed to have launch contracts in place and we might just see one, or even two, of them launch this year. By 2015 the field of contestants had whittled down to just five; SpaceIL, Moon Express, Synergy Moon, Team Indus and Hakuto. By 31 March last year the $30m prize had expired with no winner. It is a huge undertaking to try and land something on the Moon so it’s unsurprising that the prize failed to get a result in its very ambitious timeline. Fortunately it didn’t fail in driving some really innovative solutions and a few of the teams are still planning to get to the Moon.

The Lunar X-Prize was not without some controversy as one of the bonus prizes was to be awarded for a team that could photograph the Apollo landing sites. This caused quite a bit of concern as those sites are regarded as historically important and there was a risk that they would be disturbed or even damaged by an X-Prize contestant. It would have been a real shame if Neil Armstrong’s footprint was haphazardly run over by a rover gone crazy. Fortunately we don’t have to worry about that and, if anything, the controversy did raise the profile about how humans might deal with the Apollo sites in the future.

Neil Armstrong’s footprint (Credit: NASA)

Moon Express seems to be the contestant with the most advanced plans as they have launch contracts with Rocket Lab for two launches this year and one in 2020. Their plans involve three missions to the lunar surface. The first mission is called Expedition 1 and will launch the Lunar Scout in a Rocket Lab Electron. This is planned to be followed by Expedition 2 which will do prospecting around the South Pole. Expedition 3 will be a sample return mission. They signed an agreement with the Canadian Space Agency last year and they work out of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

SpaceIL is another team that is continuing work and they plan to launch their spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9 early this year. This team is based in Israel and are heavily involved in STEM educational programmes and hope to create widespread interest in space. The lander they have developed is called the Beresheet and the launch will take place on 18 Feb. The spacecraft’s own propulsion system will get it to leave Earth’s orbit and send it on its way to the Moon. Once there and landed, it will take off again and fly 500m – which was one of the requirements of the X-Prize.

The Beresheet spacecraft from SpaceIL (Credit: http://www.spaceil.com)

Another contestant is Synergy Moon and they appear to have plans to launch spacecraft in 2020. They are an international collaboration of various groups from the US, Malaysia, India, Croatia, UK and Germany.

The next team is from India, called Team Indus, and they plan to launch a spacecraft this year with a rover that will drive around on the lunar surface to fulfill the 500m requirement of the original prize. Their plans seem quite well advanced.

The Japanese team Hakuto had developed a rover called Sorato that they had planned to ride share with Team Indus. Unfortunately Team Indus announced they wouldn’t be able to launch when they originally planned in December 2017, so Sorato was grounded. Despite not launching the team is still committed.

The Team Indus lander (Credit: https://www.teamindus.in/our-blog/)

So despite the competition ending with no winner it’s likely that at least two competitors will have spacecraft sailing to the Moon, possibly even this year if all goes well. SpaceIL and Moon Express appear to be the most likely so we will be eagerly watching the launch of the Falcon 9 on the 18 Feb to see if the first contestant, SpaceIL, has success.