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It’s official: no one is going to win the Google Lunar X Prize competition

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And Google is taking its money back

An artistic rendering of competitor Moon Express’ MX-1E lander
Image: Moon Express

No one is going to win the X Prize Foundation’s competition to send a spacecraft to the Moon, the foundation announced today. Only five finalists remained in the Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize competition, and in order to win any grand prize money, the teams had to launch and complete their missions to the Moon before March 31st, 2018. But with only two months until the deadline, no team is ready to launch, so Google will keep the prize money instead.

“After close consultation with our five finalist Google Lunar X Prize teams over the past several months, we have concluded that no team will make a launch attempt to reach the Moon by the March 31st, 2018 deadline,” the X Prize Foundation released in a statement. “This literal ‘moonshot’ is hard, and while we did expect a winner by now, due to the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges, the grand prize of the $30 [million] Google Lunar X Prize will go unclaimed.”

The Google Lunar X Prize was established in 2007 as a way to help lower the cost of getting to space. So far, only government agencies have landed on the lunar surface, with missions that have cost many millions and even billions of dollars. That’s why the X Prize Foundation, which sets up global competitions, challenged teams with developing and launching robotic lunar landers using mostly private funding. The idea was to make them come up with creative methods for getting to the Moon on the cheap.

Landing on the lunar surface was only part of the challenge. Teams had to travel up to 1,640 feet (500 meters) on the Moon too, as well as do live broadcasts. The first to fulfill all these requirements before the deadline would receive $20 million, while the second place team would get $5 million. Other smaller purses would be awarded to teams that did special tasks, such as completing an orbit around the Moon before landing.

Even without a winner, the foundation says it is extremely pleased by what the five finalists and other teams have accomplished: raising a combined $300 million for their missions and creating hundreds of jobs in countries such as Israel, India, Malaysia, and Hungary. The X Prize Foundation also awarded more than $6 million for achieving certain milestones throughout the competition, making important technological advancements, or doing exceptional educational outreach. One team, Moon Express, even received regulatory approval from the US government for its mission — the first time that has ever happened for a private mission the Moon.

“As a result of this competition, we have sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the Moon,” the X Prize Foundation said in its statement. “Many now believe it’s no longer the sole purview of a few government agencies, but now may be achieved by small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world.” A Google spokesperson also told CNBC that the company is “thrilled with the progress made by these teams over the last ten years.”

The original deadline was set for 2014, but was extended at least four times until March of this year. The competition also started with more than 30 registered teams and was eventually reduced down to five finalists: SpaceIL from Israel, Moon Express from the US, TeamIndus from India, Hakuto from Japan, and Synergy Moon made up of members from six different continents. All five of these teams had secured launch contracts with rocket companies to send their vehicles to space. But none of them except Hakuto have completed their spacecraft, and Hakuto’s rover is meant to ride to space on TeamIndus’ lander. Plus, neither SpaceIL nor TeamIndus have been able to fully fund their missions.

An artistic rendering of competitor SpaceIL’s lunar lander
Image: SpaceIL

Many teams say they will still pursue their missions. Moon Express, for instance, plans to mine the lunar surface one day. “The competition was a sweetener in the landscape of our business case, but it’s never been the business case itself,” said Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, in a statement. “We continue to focus on our core business plans of collapsing the cost of access to the Moon, our partnership with NASA, and our long-term vision of unlocking lunar resources for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space.” Meanwhile, other non-finalist teams are still working on getting to the Moon, such as Astrobotic, which wants to become a lunar delivery service.

The X Prize Foundation is considering ways to help these teams continue working. The organization may find another sponsor to provide cash prizes for teams that do end up making it to the Moon. Or the Lunar X Prize may simply live on as a competition without cash prizes, and the X Prize Foundation will continue to promote the teams’ achievements.

The failure may inspire doubt as to whether cash prizes are an effective incentive for lowering the cost of spaceflight. But the X Prize Foundation says it is undeterred and will continue to set up contests to promote technological advancement. “If every X Prize competition we launch has a winner, we are not being audacious enough, and we will continue to launch competitions that are literal or figurative moonshots, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” the foundation said in a statement.