Posted December 15, 2015

Lunar X-Prize: Two companies book launches

The first two private companies have booked launches to bring their robots to the moon. Both are competitors in the 'Google Lunar X-Prize' competition. In order to win a 20 million dollar Grand Prize, a contender needs to put a robot on the Moon, send hi-def pictures back to Earth and move the robot at least 500 meters.

The two companies are SpaceIL, a nonprofit from Israel, and Moon Express, a Silicon Valley enterprise that aims eventually to do mining on the Moon. SpaceIL has hitched a ride on a  SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. They did so via Spaceflight, a company that buys up launch opportunities and resells them to customers (News blog Qz.com calls them 'the Uber of orbital access'). Moon Express has booked with Rocket Lab, a startup which still  has to launch its first rocket, but intends to do so in 2016. Both private Moon robots are supposed to be launched in 2017. As a matter of fact, Moon Express has booked no less than five launches, of which two are planned to take off in 2017.

Regular readers of this blog may remember that we wrote about the Google Lunar X-Prize back in February this year. We mentioned the participants who were encouraged by a 'Milestone Prize' for intermediate achievements. Moon Express was one of those. We also reported that Google had extended the deadline for the Moon landing to December 31, 2016. In the meantime another extension has taken place. Now it  has become one year later, Dec 31, 2017, provided at least one contender book their launch before 2016. Had this not happened, the Prize would have expired. Now that the first launches are on the agenda, more competitors can join even in 2016.

How do Moon Express and SpaceIL intend to pull this off? SpaceIL has presented their flight plan in the video below. It wants to land, shoot video, and then blast off and land again 500 m away, just to meet demands for the Prize. That way SpaceIL avoids having to drive. Driving is risky on the Moon and so is taking off and landing, so that doesn't make much of an difference. But an important thing is using a transport mechanism that you already have, and that's been proven to work (or else you wouldn't be on the lunar surface in one piece). Bringing lots of wheels and motors and a steering mechanism just for a 500 m ride is asking for trouble.

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And here's a video of Moon Express's lander being tested on Earth. It too, will hop 500 m instead of driving. The fact that both leading teams have made this choice indicates that this really is the smartest way of going to a different place on the Moon, provided moving once is your only goal. If you need to do things on the way, like taking samples, and if you need to have a flexible and not too energy-intensive means of transportation, driving might be a good idea after all.

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It will be exciting to watch whether other competitors will join this phase of the race, and whether the launches will take place in time. There is no big margin for error, unless Google moves the deadline once more. And the risk is high: SpaceX's  last launch failed, and Rocket Lab never even launched once. So stay tuned.