Today was the official deadline for the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize competition — an international contest to send the first private spacecraft to the Moon. There is no winner; no one got to the Moon in time. But many of the teams that competed in the Google Lunar X Prize say they are still forging ahead, even without the promise of millions of dollars in prize money.
The rules of the competition were relatively straightforward: build a robotic lander, using mostly private money, that can touch down gently on the Moon. Once there, the spacecraft had to explore the lunar surface — and then send back video and pictures to Earth. The winner was promised $20 million and the second-place team would have won $5 million. Other teams could have received extra money for doing special tasks like completing a full orbit around the Moon or filming video from an old Apollo landing site.
Even without Google’s cash, there are still other incentives
Last year, only five finalist teams were left in the competition, from the original 29 teams that registered for the challenge. The final five all had verified launch contracts with rocket companies to potentially launch their spacecraft before the deadline. Though none took off before today, a few of the finalists and semi-finalists still have contracts to launch in the next few years. Most of the teams are still developing their landers, but none have shown any completed hardware yet. That hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm or confidence.
The prize purse was Google’s money — so the company kept its $30 million. But even without Google’s cash, there are still other incentives. The Trump administration recently directed NASA to send humans to the lunar surface again. And the president’s 2019 budget request for the space agency proposes a long-term plan to partner with commercial companies, in order to develop new small and medium-sized lunar landers. So there’s still Uncle Sam’s money to be made, even if Google’s out of the picture.
Of course, there’s the glory. Only government-funded spacecraft have ever landed on the Moon; no private company has yet managed the task. Perhaps one of the Google Lunar X Prize teams can still make it happen. Here’s your guide to who they are, and what they’re up to.
Israel-based SpaceIL, a non-profit, was the first team to secure a verified launch contract for its lander — a vehicle that’s designed to land and then hop across the lunar surface. The company says it will launch the spacecraft on a future SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, by the end of 2018.
SpaceIL has been building its lander inside a clean room facility at Israel Aerospace Industries, that country’s premiere aerospace manufacturer. Engineers recently added the engine and the fuel tanks to the body of the spacecraft, and they also tested out the lander’s cameras in a vacuum chamber. (That’s to simulate the space environment, according to SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby.)
Earlier this year, the organization admitted it still didn’t have all the money it needed to launch its lander. But Anteby says the team has enough to keep going for now, and that they’re still fundraising. He’s optimistic. “At this advanced stage, nothing will stop us from reaching the Moon before the end of 2018,” Anteby said in an emailed statement to The Verge.
Astrobotic bowed out of the X Prize competition in December 2016, when they realized they couldn’t meet the deadline. But the Pittsburgh-based company still plans to send its spacecraft to the Moon — and it boasts some impressive business partners. Last year, Astrobotic signed a contract to launch its first lunar lander, called Peregrine, on an Atlas V rocket made by the United Launch Alliance. The team is also working with airplane manufacturer Airbus to make the legs for the lander. Oh, and NASA awarded Astrobotic a contract to develop a tiny rover that can explore the Moon, too.
If all goes well, the company’s first Peregrine lander will carry up to 584 pounds (265 kilograms) of scientific packages to the Moon’s surface. So far, 11 groups from six different nations have agreed to fly instruments on the Peregrine’s first flight — and there’s more room open, according to CEO John Thornton. Originally, Astrobotic hoped to fly the lander in 2019, but Thornton says the target date for the mission is now mid-2020. The company is still seeking additional funding for the flight.
Astrobotic’s goal is to complete a critical design review of the Peregrine before the end of the year. After that, construction of the lander will begin. If all goes well, this flight will be Astrobotic’s first step toward establishing a lunar delivery service. The company wants to scale up its landers so they can deliver even more goods to the Moon. “We’re currently leading the world in payload sales and development,” Thornton tells The Verge. “We’ve spent an enormous amount of energy in building up that payload market.”
Moon Express aims to mine the lunar surface — either for water or minerals to sell. And last year, the company showed off graphics of a planned fleet of landers to make that happen, called the MX Robotic Explorers. But first, Moon Express plans to launch a prototype spacecraft, called the MX-1E. The company has a contract with US space startup Rocket Lab to launch the tiny probe on an experimental rocket called the Electron that’s flown out of New Zealand.
The MX-1E mission is fully funded, according to Moon Express. And the company made a big splash in 2016 when it announced that it had secured approval from the US government to send the MX-1E lander to the Moon — the first time any private company had received permission.
Still, Moon Express hasn’t shown any hardware for the MX-1E yet. In July, the company said it was testing parts of the lander at its facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida — but there haven’t been any updates since then. CEO Bob Richards did provide a quick statement to The Verge over the weekend: “The Google Lunar X Prize was a welcome sweetener in the landscape of our commercial lunar business plans and has had a positive impact on the world. We applaud X Prize and Google for issuing a bold challenge and sticking with it for over a decade.”
For a while, TeamIndus had a solid ride for its lunar lander: India’s workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. But once the Indian-based team realized it wouldn’t make the X Prize deadline, it decided to cancel its contract with the space agency and look elsewhere. “We had to slow down on account of challenges in fundraising,” Rahul Narayan, CEO of TeamIndus, tells The Verge.
“We believe we’re at the right time and right place to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
Now, TeamIndus is drawing up new plans for the next five years. The company is still developing its lander, though it’s making some new design changes. And it’s looking for a new ride, too. Narayan says the company is in talks with two international launch providers and hopes to launch as early as 2019. Once a deal is made with a launch company, TeamIndus will begin putting all the pieces of the lander together. “We’re not in a position to put it together today and wait for a launch date,” Narayan says. “Some time in the coming quarter we’ll have a launch window.”
As for money, the company continues to fundraise and is also offering rides on its lander for organizations that want to send equipment to the Moon. “We believe we’re at the right time and right place to continue doing what we’ve been doing — building a spacecraft that can orbit the Moon and then land on the Moon,” says Narayan.
The Japanese team Hakuto had already built its lunar rover, Sorato, before the X Prize deadline — but it was all dressed up with nowhere to go. The team had agreed to send up its vehicle on the lander from TeamIndus, so the group was dependent on the Indian team flying before today.
Hakuto was able to raise more than $90 million in funding during the competition and is being overseen by a company called ispace. The group has offices in Tokyo, Luxembourg, and the US. It has another thing going for it: Japan is betting big on space. The country’s prime minister Shinzō Abe announced this month that the government will set aside nearly $1 billion to fund space startups. Ispace could capitalize on that investment.
That could help ispace as it continues to make miniature rovers — and it has plans to build a fleet of landers too. “For ispace, the Google Lunar X Prize competition was our starting point,” Takeshi Hakamada, CEO of ispace, said in an emailed statement to The Verge. “It allowed us to develop our core strength: the miniaturization of space robotics.” That knowledge will help ispace build a low-cost lunar transportation system, he said.
PT Scientists, a semi-finalist team from Germany, plans to bring wireless internet to the Moon. The group recently announced a partnership with Vodafone and Nokia to put a 4G base-station on the lunar surface. PT Scientists says it needs the setup, since it will be sending a lot of hardware to the Moon on its first trip: a lander and two rovers that it’s been building in a partnership with Audi. A 4G-base station will make it easier to transmit data between the spacecraft and back to Earth.
PT Scientists hopes to launch this hardware in 2019 on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the company claims a contract for the mission is in place. The Verge emailed PT Scientists asking about the development of the spacecraft and funding, but the company declined to comment. However, a spokesperson said to expect announcements in the coming months.
We haven’t heard a peep from the international team Synergy Moon, one of the five X Prize finalists, since early February. Like Hakuto, the team decided to fly its rover on TeamIndus’ lander. No one responded to an emailed request about the company’s plans. The team’s website doesn’t offer up much more information, either.
Update April 2nd, 8:50AM ET: This article was updated to include a statement from Moon Express CEO Bob Richards.