Five Teams Remain as Google Lunar XPRIZE Enters Final Phase

Credit: XPRIZE Foundation.
Space is hard. While startups success rates are slowly increasing in low earth orbit (LEO), it’s even harder for startups looking beyond low earth orbit. In fact, no company with the goal of operating a commercial enterprise near or on the moon, can call themselves a success, yet. But just maybe we’ll the emergence of one as a the result of the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

2017 The Defining Year for the Google Lunar XPRIZE

2017 will be the defining year for the Google Lunar XPRIZE as the deadline for the remaining competitors to launch their payloads to the moon and possibly win the Grand Prize is the end of the year.

For the remaining five teams, the pressure is on. At stake is the $20 million Grand Prize for the winner and $5 million for the second place team. There are also other potential prizes to be won which could increase the overall prize money awarded to $43.25 million. To date, $6.25 million from the Milestone and Diversity Prizes have been awarded.

It’s been a long road for the competitors. 31 teams originally filed letters of intent after the competition was announced in September of 2007.

Along the way we’ve seen team mergers, teams acquiring others, and in the case of Astrobotic, a long-time leader in the competition, they withdrew from the competition last December not wanting to be constrained by the 2017 deadline. During the early stages of the competition they had already won $1.75 million in Milestone Prizes.

One other significant aspect to the competition is the changing of the rules over the course of the competition. The XPRIZE Foundation reserves the right to make changes to the competition and that’s just what they’ve done, including changing a mission requirement in the guidelines this past week.

In a press release issued on Tuesday, January 24th, the Google Lunar XPRIZE updated the guideline related to completing the mission requirements. They said “in recognition of the diverse mission plans of each finalist team, XPRIZE made an update to the guidelines to require that the launch is initiated by the December 31, 2017 deadline, instead of completed.” Once again the deadline to win the competition has been changed. Previous to this change teams had to launch and complete their mission by the end of 2017.

SpaceQ contacted the Google Lunar XPRIZE to get a clarification on what they specifically meant by “initiated”. We provided the following example; what if competitor A has their payload on the pad and launch is scheduled for December 31 but because of weather or some technical issue with the rocket the launch is delayed into January 2018, are they still eligible to win the grand prize? In response to our query spokesperson Eric Desatnik said “our deadline is December 31, 2017 for the launch to happen. We will work with each team on a case by case basis if a technical issue arises with their launch provider.”

That would suggest there is still some flexibility in the deadline date of December 31, 2017. It also means that teams can complete the post launch mission requirements in 2018.

Team Indus ECA Rover
Team Indus ECA Rover. Credit: Team Indus.

Here are the post launch mission requirements;

  • Landing – A team must land its craft on the surface of the Moon after providing advance notice of its launch and intended landing site to XPRIZE.
  • Mobility – After landing, a team must move its craft a distance of at least five hundred meters below, on, or above the lunar surface along an interesting path in a deliberate manner. The distance can be a straight line or may be a series of waypoints approved by the Judging Panel.
  • Mooncasts – A team must transmit two “Mooncasts” from the surface of the Moon. The first Mooncast would be after lunar arrival and the second would be at the completion of the mobility requirements. Each Mooncast must contain eight minutes of video in both high definition (720p) and near real time transmitted as high priority that can be in a lower resolution, a panoramic photograph to give a 360° view of the arrival or mission completion site, images showing a substantial portion of the craft and payload, and set of data provided by XPRIZE including a video and audio message, an email, and a text message. Prior to their launch the team must submit technical details of their mission for review by the Judging Panel.
  • Data Uplink – A team must transmit to the craft as much as one hundred kilobytes of data provided by XPRIZE and then retransmit that data from their craft back to Earth.
  • Payload – A team must carry a payload consisting of a data disk and commemorative plaque to the surface of the Moon. The data disk will be mounted in a manner that permits easy removal from the craft so that it can be accessed by future Lunar explorers.

The five remaining teams present quite a story. The fact that they are still in it at this stage suggests good team management and planning, a verified launch contract in place and adequate funding to continue. But first, what happened to the Canadians?

Odyssey Moon Joins SpaceIL, Team Plan B Moves Forward

Early on in the competition, Canada’s stake in the Google Lunar XPRIZE was represented by the first team to sign up, Odyssey Moon. Although based out of the Isle of Man, the team was led by Bob Richards and included Canada’s MDA as a partner.

But by early 2010 Richards and the Odyssey Moon team seemed to have pushed the venture as far as they could go and Richards left the company in August of that year. He said at the time “the rationale for investing my time and energy timed out and I have had to resign as CEO to pursue funded ventures.” He would then co-found Moon Express, a U.S. based company, with investors Naveen Jain and Barney Pell. This venture it seems, would be funded from the get go.

Odyssey Moon meanwhile would merge with SpaceIl, now a leading contender.

As for Team Plan B, the lone Canadian Team, the goal of the winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE is over, but not the goal of reaching the moon. While the team did not make the cut to compete for the Grand Prize, team leader Alex Dobrianski told SpaceQ they’re still a member of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition and are still working on their technology.

In fact the news is promising for the team. Late last year they secured a small amount of funding from a private U.S. investor but would not reveal how much and who the investor was. Yesterday, the Google Lunar XPRIZE announced they had awarded $1 million to be divided among 16 teams for the Diversity Prize including a share, $62,500, for Team Plan B. They also have a contract with Interorbital Systems to launch a test CubeSat to LEO.

Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE said “XPRIZE and Google have been awestruck by the educational outreach activities conducted by all of the competing teams and have decided to split the $1 million Diversity Prize across all 16 teams to recognize each of their unique approaches and initiatives over the years. Each of these teams has pushed the boundaries to demonstrate that you don’t have to be a government superpower to send a mission to the Moon, while inspiring audiences to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”

Team Plan B won’t launch for the moon this year but the dream to reach the moon continues. The following video provides good insight on Alex and his teams efforts. It’s a feel good story.

SpaceIL – Sending Israel to the Moon

Founded in 2011, SpaceIL is a non-profit organization created by three young engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub. Their goal is not to just reach the moon, but to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon.

It is an ambition that has not only energized space enthusiasts in Israel, but has engaged students across the country and has become a goal that seemingly all Israelis support.

To browse their website and see who serves on their board of directors, their advisors, their partners, it all showcases a who’s who and leading business and educational institutions in Israel. What started as a as a small team of engineers, is now a national effort.

The rules for the competition are clear though, teams can not receive government funding in excess of 10% of its total mission cost and that total includes the value of in-kind support. So SpaceIL must walk a fine line with their supporters. In 2014 they successfully raised $283,889 USD on an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

Israel hosted the International Astronautical Congress in 2015, and it was evident by their efforts, that they want the world to do business with them and showcased their wares. SpaceIL was a part of that effort. At the congress they announced that they were the first team to have a launch contract in place that had been verified by the Lunar Google XPRIZE. Their launch provider is SpaceX.

According to the Google Lunar XPRIZE website, the current status of SpaceIL is that “the main electronic components of the SpaceIL spacecraft are assembled at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) facility, where the spacecraft will undergo rigorous testing to withstand the environmental conditions of space.  In the beginning of 2017, the spacecraft structure and its propulsion system will begin integration.”

SpaceIL has a good chance to win the competition. Should they have all their funding in place in time, and should SpaceX meet their targeted launch schedule for the year, then Israel might just be on its way to the moon this year.

SpaceIL at the 2015 International Astronautical Congress
SpaceIL at the 2015 International Astronautical Congress. Credit: SpaceQ.

Team Indus

Similar to SpaceIl, Team Indus has captured the imagination of the Indian public. They’ve also won $1 million in Milestone Prizes for their landing technology. The team boasts over 100 members with 12 advisors and 11 business partners and importantly secured a launch contract with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

While all the teams in the competition boast an entrepreneurial spirit, Team Indus has attracted several high networth individuals who are now reinvesting in the Indian marketplace, this according to co-founder Dilip Chabria in an article in the Indian publication Business Outlook.

Like SpaceIL, they have a launch contract with a proven launch provider in ISRO. The problem they face, similar to all the teams, is surmounting the cost of a launch provider. And while ISRO is a cheaper option then SpaceX, the cost to launch is still a reported US$60 million. Reportedly they paid somewhere between US$20-25 million to secure the launch. However, and interestingly, the Japanese entry in competition, Team Hakuto, has agreed to share the “ride” to the moon, which will certainly reduce the costs.

Team Indus has a good shot at winning the competition. They’ve proven they can bring together the necessary people to make a strong effort, they’ve proven they can raise funds and by ride-sharing with another competitor they’ve reduced the funds they need to raise.

Team Indus Moon Lander illustration
Team Indus Moon Lander illustration. Credit: Team Indus.

Moon Express

Moon Express is the lone U.S. entry left in the competition and along with SpaceIL were the first to have their launch contract verified in 2015 which allowed the competition to move forward in 2016. The other three remaining competitors announced their verified launch contracts in the latter half of 2016.

The team is led by Bob Richards, a transplanted Canadian with a long history of working in the space sector, most notably as the co-founder of the International Space University, Singularity University, SEDS and the Space Generation Foundation. He was also the director of the Optech Space Division from 2002-2009, a Canadian company.

The company recently revealed that it had secured US$20 million in a Series B-1 round of funding which would enable it to cover the costs of its launch to the moon. To date,  the company has raised over US$53 million in funding since its founding in 2010 according to Crunchbase.

Of the five remaining teams in the competition Moon Express is the most developed from a business perspective. SpaceIL, Team Indus and Synergy Moon are not commercial entities in the sense that Moon Express is. And for Moon Express, the Google Lunar X Prize isn’t the sole focus on company, it’s part of a larger business plan that includes developing a sustainable lunar commercial venture.

Moon Express is also cognizant of the political ramifications of a commercial entity trying to take advantage of the moon’s resources. That’s why for several years they’ve been working behind the scenes talking with different U.S. government agencies to legally build the framework for U.S. company to travel beyond the LEO and land on the moon.

On August 3rd, 2016 Moon Express got the green light from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to land on the moon. In the fact sheet released by the FAA they said “on July 20, 2016, the FAA made a favorable payload determination for the Moon Express MX-1E mission. The FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.”

In press release issued the same day as the FAA ruling,  Richards said “the U.S. Government has made a historic ruling to allow the first private enterprise, Moon Express, Inc. (MoonEx), permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit and land on the Moon in 2017. This breakthrough U.S. policy decision provides authorization to Moon Express for a maiden flight of its robotic spacecraft onto the Moon’s surface, beginning a new era of ongoing commercial lunar exploration and discovery, unlocking the immense potential of the Moon’s valuable resources. Moon Express received the green light for pursuing its 2017 lunar mission following in depth consultations with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies.”

As part of its greater plans, Moon Express entered into a lease with the U.S. Air Force for launch complexes 17 and 18 at Cape Canaveral. Initially they will be used to test the MX-1 lander destined for the moon, but could eventually be used to launch other missions.

Currently, Moon Express will use Rocket Lab USA to launch the MX-1 lander. Moon Express has the option of  launching from Rocket Lab’s private launch range in New Zealand or from an American range though at this time they plan to launch from New Zealand.

Unlike SpaceIl and Team Indus/Hakuto who are using proven launch providers, Moon Express will use Rocket Lab which was founded in 2006 by Peter Beck. While Beck and his team have secured funding and have made progress in developing their Electron rocket, they are still unproven and have not test flown the rocket. That should be happening very shortly. This is the riskiest part of the Moon Express plan to win the competition.

Richards is putting a lot of faith in Rocket Lab. In an email exchange with SpaceQ he said of Rocket Lab, “we have high confidence that Rocket Lab will successfully achieve operational status this year and be ready for our launch at the end of the year.” And according to Richards, “with Rocket Lab’s current manifest and test plans, we would be flight number 7, after NASA.”

When asked if Moon Express has alternate plans should Rocket Lab not be ready to launch their payload, Richards said “there are no other launch options we are aware of for 2017 that aren’t in our view too high a risk or cost for our MX-1E maiden mission.” It’s an all or nothing gamble for Moon Express, at least as far as winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE. He further said “independent from the timing constraints of our Google Lunar XPRIZE customer, Rocket Lab is the perfect size and cost for our first spacecraft product, but we have many launch options for the future.”

When asked about the importance of the Google Lunar X Prize, Richards said “it matters because $20M is significant revenue – but in the large context of our business plans, we are not dependent on it. The company is focused on developing a short term market in lunar transportation and a long term market of lunar resources.”

Commenting on status of the the competition, Richards said “the Google Lunar XPRIZE has done a great job inspiring teams worldwide to shoot for a dream thought only within the reach of governments, while bringing a focus back to the Moon as an important destination for expansion as a multi world species.”

Moon Express leased launch complexes 17 and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base
Moon Express leased launch complexes 17 and 18 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Credit: Moon Express.

Synergy Moon

Synergy is an appropriate word to describe the efforts of Synergy Moon. They are the result of a merger between InterPlanetary Ventures and Human Synergy Moon Project and include partnerships with four other teams including Team Stellar, Omega Envoy, Team SpaceMeta, Independence-X and includes teams members from 15 countries. There is one Canadian on the team, Michael Smith a self-styled Business Development Specialist and Eclectic Entrepreneur.

On August 16th, 2016, the Google Lunar XPRIZE announced that they had verified the launch contract of Synergy Moon. They will be using Interorbital Systems (IOS) Neptune L-1000 rocket. Interorbital Systems was founded in 1996 and participated in the Ansari X Prize and is working in the CubeSat market selling satellite kits, launching sounding rockets and developing their Neptune rocket.

The L-1000 variant of the Neptune rocket is “is a multi-stage medium-lift launch vehicle capable of launching a 1000-Kg payload into low-earth orbit or a 190-Kg payload to Earth escape velocity. The rocket is composed of 9 IOS Common Propulsion Modules.” At last report it could deliver 25kg to the lunar surface.

Synergy Moon plans to deploy two rovers on the moon from their lunar lander.

Synergy Moon Tesla Rover
Synergy Moon Tesla Rover. Credit: Synergy Moon.

According to the Synergy Moon “the Tesla Surveyor is designed as a virtual excursion vehicle. Equipped with twin high definition video cameras for stereoscopic vision, the Tesla Surveyor will take viewers on a trip across the surface of the moon. The Tesla Prospector is designed as a virtual prospector, with sensors and cameras to examine the environment and identify the mineral content of the rocks and lunar regolith”. The Tesla Prospector Rover meanwhile “will also be equipped with twin cameras for stereoscopic vision. Both rovers feature an internet based control system that will allow tourists, scientist and prospectors to take control of the rovers for a virtual excursion on the moon.”

The biggest obstacle to success for Synergy Moon, aside from funding, is using an unproven launch system. Certainly, IOS has proven it can launch rockets, however it’s one thing to launch sounding rockets, rockets to LEO, it’s another level of complexity to reach the moon.

Hakuto

Hakuto is a mixture of professionals and volunteers. On the professional side they are led by Takeshi Hakamada from the ispace inc. with support from Professor Kazuya Yoshida of Tohoku University who has participated in several Japanese space missions. ispace inc. is a startup looking to extract resources from the moon.

Hakuto has already won US$500,000 from the Mobility Prize money. In December they announced they had signed an agreement with Team Indus to ride share on the ISRO launch Team Indus had already secured. Terms of the deal were not announced.

Unlike the other teams, Hakuto has signed on an official lead sponsor in KDDI, a Japanese telecommunications provider. They’s also signed on half a dozen corporate sponsors.

From a technology perspective, the team has invested considerable energy in developing their rover, hence why they won a share of the Mobility Prize. The other two winners who shared in the Mobility Prize were Astrobotic, who have withdrawn from the competition, and Part-Time Scientists.

Since mobility is a critical technology to succeed in winning the competition, it would seem Hakuto might have the edge on some of the other teams. Of note, they are not only sharing the ride with Team Indus, they will be using the Team Indus lander as their platform to deploy from the surface. This is an interesting strategy. It certainly will save them money. Not only do they not need to develop a lander, they don’t need to procure a launch provider. The trade-off will be, one would assume, is sharing part of the Grand Prize with Team Indus should they win.

According to the press release from the Google Lunar X Prize released this week announcing the five remaining teams, “Hakuto’s ultimate target is to explore holes that are thought to be caves or ‘skylights’ into underlying lava tubes, for the first time in history, which could lead to important scientific discoveries and possibly identifying long-term habitats to shield humans from the Moon’s hostile environment.”

They also plan on attempting to win one of the bonus prizes, the Range Bonus of $2 million which will be awarded to a team that can move its vehicle along the surface of the Moon five kilometers.

Part-Time Scientists

Update 2:00 p.m. EST, Friday, January 27, 2017: An earlier version of this story stated that the Part-Time Scientists had withdrawn. Karsten Becker of Part-Time Scientists contacted us to let us know they have not withdrawn from the competition and they have a launch contract but would only be ready to launch in 2018.

Startup Files
Is a new regular feature on SpaceQ focused on startups and new ideas in the space sector.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceRef Canada Interactive Inc, CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef U.S., advisor and co-founder of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, and director and co-founder of MaxQ Accelerator Inc. Previously he was the founder of Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine which he sold.

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