Google Lunar XPRIZE: the robotic race to the Moon

Hollywood director J.J. Abrams’ new series Moon Shot follows the race to land robots on the surface of the Moon, but why are we doing it?

4th March 2016
Google Lunar XPRIZE: the robotic race to the moon (Moon Shot: A Space Story About Life On Earth © Google Lunar XPRIZE/YouTube)

Moon Shot: A Space Story About Life On Earth (© Google Lunar XPRIZE/YouTube)

The first space race began back in 1955, when eminent Russian physicist Leonid Sedov revealed the USSR’s intention to send a probe into space four days after the US announced plans to launch a satellite. Sixty years later and we are approaching the closing stages of another space race: the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP).

The finish line is the same, the Moon, but the competitors are different. Rather than nations with competing ideologies, they’re private companies seeking to commercialise space. And all they have to do to win the $20m (£13m) grand prize is be the first to have a non-government-funded vehicle drive on the Moon’s surface.

The whole race is to be documented in a new documentary Moon Shot, produced by Star Wars director J. J. Abrams and you can watch the trailer below:

"The GLXP is asking teams to accomplish a feat that has never been achieved: land a private craft on the lunar surface, then have it travel at least 500 metres and transmit high-definition video back to Earth,” says GLXP’s president Robert Weiss. And they have until 31 December 2016 to do it.

More than 30 teams signed up to GLXP when it launched in 2007. Only 18 are still in the running, and of these, five are clear frontrunners. In January this year these teams shared Milestone Prize money totalling $5m (£3.2m) for demonstrating viable technology across three categories: landing, mobility and imaging.

The USA’s Astrobotic team was the only one to win prizes in each of the categories, thanks to the progress made with its Griffin lander and Andy rover. Astrobotic proposes to carry at least four other competitor rovers to the Moon in Griffin, which is set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of this year.

The sole Japanese entry, Hakuto, is signed up as Astrobotic’s first passenger. Hakuto won a $500,000 mobility Milestone Prize for its paired rovers Moonraker and Tetris.

“We are planning to explore a hole on the Moon that’s thought to be a lava tube,” says Hakuto’s Kyoko Yonezawa. “A lava tube would be a perfect place to build a lunar base, since it would be protected by a thick layer of rock from intense radiation and extreme temperatures. Tetris, connected by a tether to Moonraker, will be lowered into the hole to explore the lava tube.”

The potential fortunes to be made from payload delivery systems, colonisation and lunar mining are what all the GLXP competitors ultimately aspire to, but the first challenge they have to overcome is funding. Although the prize money for the winner and runners-up totals $30m (£19.7m), it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to how much is needed to turn these projects into viable businesses. That’s the real challenge behind the GLXP – to make lunar exploration affordable for organisations other than government agencies, so we don’t have to wait another 45 years before our next visit to the Moon.

 

The five milestone prizewinners so far

PART-TIME SCIENTISTS (© XPRIZE Press Office)

PART-TIME SCIENTISTS - Berlin, Germany

MILESTONE PRIZE - Mobility, Imaging

SIZE - 90 x 75 x 60cm

WEIGHT - 40kg

MONEY AWARDED - $750,000

This team is comprised of scientists from all over Europe collaborating via the internet. The Part-Time Scientists team is building a four-wheeled, solar-powered rover called Asimov, which they tested on Tenerife’s Mount Tiede volcano in December 2014 due to its similarity to the lunar surface. Their aim is to have Asimov travel to the Apollo 17 landing site and take pictures.

 

ASTROBOTIC (© XPRIZE Press Office)

ASTROBOTIC - Pittsburgh, USA

MILESTONE PRIZES - Landing, Mobility, Imaging

SIZE - Griffin 4.5m diameter, 1.6m height; Andy 100 x 100 x 90cm

WEIGHT - Griffin 535kg, 1,685kg fuel; Andy 33kg

MONEY AWARDED - $1.75m

Astrobotic’s long-term goal is to use its Griffin lander as a delivery system for customers to send equipment to the Moon (they’ve already signed up Hakuto’s rovers as its first ‘passengers’). The team has close ties to Carnegie Mellon University, which is a world leader in robotics, and has developed the Andy rover to be able to travel at 15cm per second and climb 15° slopes.

 

MOON EXPRESS (© XPRIZE Press Office)

MOON EXPRESS - Mountain View, USA

MILESTONE PRIZES - Landing, Imaging

SIZE - 1.2m diameter, 76cm height

WEIGHT - 150kg, 450kg fuel

MONEY AWARDED - $1.25m

Based at NASA’s Ames Centre in California, Moon Express’ ultimate goal is to mine the lunar surface. The team used modified commercial camera tech to win its Milestone Prize for imaging, but has taken an unorthodox approach to building its craft. The MX-1 is a combined lander-rover system that will touch down on the surface then ‘hop’ to another destination by relaunching and landing again.

 

TEAM INDUS (© XPRIZE Press Office)

TEAM INDUS - New Delhi, India

MILESTONE PRIZE - Landing

SIZE - Rover 40 x 50 x 60cm

WEIGHT - Rover 12kg

MONEY AWARDED - $1m

Team Indus plans to use a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket belonging to the India Space Research Organisation to take its HHK1 lander and two solar-powered rovers into space. One of the rovers is tasked with winning the $20m grand prize, but Team Indus is looking to set range and endurance records with its second vehicle.

 

HAKUTO (© XPRIZE Press Office)

HAKUTO - Tokyo, Japan

MILESTONE PRIZE - Mobility

SIZE - Moonraker 48 x 60 x 54cm; Tetris 27 x 54 x 21cm

WEIGHT - Moonraker 8kg; Tetris 2kg

MONEY AWARDED - $500,000

The word ‘Hakuto’ comes from a Japanese folktale and means white rabbit – hence the ears on the team’s logo. The team, based at Tohoku University, is using Astrobotic’s lander to carry its Moonraker and Tetris rovers to the Moon where it hopes to win the range prize by using Tetris, its smaller rover, to explore a lava tube beneath the lunar surface.