Posted February 6, 2015

Lunar X Project extends deadline, awards prizes

If you're working on your private lunar robot, rejoice: you have one more year to make it happen. If you're not working on your own mission to the Moon, read on to find out who does, and who just won a 'Milestone Prize' for, well, milestone achievements along the way.

This is about the Lunar X Prize. It's a competition for privately funded projects, sponsored by Google. There's a 20 million dollar prize for whoever gets to the Moon first, has their lander move at least 500 meters and manages to broadcast live hd video footage to Earth. The prize is named after the Ansari X Prize, which was 10 M$ for the first private organization to launch people into space twice within two weeks. This prize was won in 2004 by a space tourism company.

If you're not in the Lunar X race right now, you're out. 18 teams are still competing; no new ones will be allowed in. Here's a brand new video that the Lunar X Prize organization recently released. It features the voice of Tim Allen as a narrator, who also is the voice of Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies.

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The prize has a deadline which used to be December 31, 2012. It has been extended some time ago to 2015 and recently once more, to December 31, 2016. Says Andrew Barton, who used to work for ATG and now heads Technical Operations for the Lunar Prize at the XPRIZE Foundation: 'When it became clear that no team was likely to launch before the 2015 deadline we decided to extend the deadline one more time and give them a bit more time to overcome the technical and financial challenges that they face.'

What's so hard about putting a robot on the Moon? It's a tremendous technical challenge of course, especially if you don't have 5% of the US federal budget at your disposal, like NASA did in the late sixties and early seventies. 'Other things that teams have to deal with are the limited launch opportunities, legal issues and just the difficulty of keeping together their teams,' adds Barton.

Many teams have been working for years to compete for a prize that only one team can win. Recently the Xprize organization decided to award 'Milestone Prizes' for important intermediary achievements. Barton: 'We wanted to recognize teams for tangible technical progress and we wanted to add some financial stimulus to the business plans of the stronger teams.' In other words, the Milestone Prizes serve to help promising teams move forward and to keep spirits up.

What are the Milestone Prizes and who got them? The prizes concern technologies for the three essential parts of the main prize: landing, moving around and making and broadcasting images. The 'Landing' prize earned three teams a million dollars each, the Mobility prize was three times half a million and the Imaging prize was a quarter million, also for three teams.

Looking at the winners, you will get a fair idea of who's ahead in the race. US Team Astrobotic picked up three Milestone Prizes. Moon Express, also from the US, won two. German team Part Time Scientists got two as well. Two other teams had one prize each. 

Will any team complete the race before deadline? There have been only a couple very modest test launches so should we hold our breath? Andrew Barton is 'relatively confident' and chooses his words carefully: 'Yes, two years is enough time for teams to make a mission attempt. Reaching orbit itself is not a huge challenge since hundreds of satellites are launched every year by a number of countries. However what's far from simple is completing the development of a spacecraft that's capable of completing the Google Lunar XPRIZE mission requirements in time.'

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.