There May Not Be a Google Lunar X Prize Winner but Winners Have Already Emerged

Artist illustration of ispace orbiter headed to the moon. Credit: ispace.

The Google Lunar X Prize has a final hard date of March 31, 2018. If none of the finalists have completed their mission to the moon by that date then no one will win.  Even so, it’s clear now that the spirit of the competition has been met.

The Google Lunar X Prize was announced on September 13, 2010. The goal of the competition was to kick-start private exploration of the moon.

The original press release stated that “private companies from around the world will compete to land a privately funded robotic rover on the Moon that is capable of completing several mission objectives, including roaming the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and sending video, images and data back to the Earth.”

We’re on the verge of that happening.

It’s taken longer than was originally thought but five teams, Hakuto, Moon Express, SpaceIL, Synergy Moon and Team Indus are the only teams left in the competition. Of those, all but Synergy Moon appear to have a shot of winning the prize. But even if none meet the deadline, several have funding and business plans and will move forward anyway. And that was what the competition had intended to do. So in the end even if no team wins, the competition is a success.

Let’s take a look at each remaining team and what their status is. I’m also going to include a team that dropped out of the competition a year ago, Astrobotic. The company has built a solid enough business that they decided to proceed on their own timeline.

Hakuto

Hakuto, the team from Japan is managed by the private new space company ispace which has grand plans for the extraction of resources on the moon.  They have a solid team with plenty of experience in developing robotic machines. Last week they announced US$90M in series A funding which they say will allow them to send two rovers to the moon by 2020.

They want to win the Google Lunar X Prize to demonstrate their rover technology prowess. The rover is ready and is being shipped to India in preparation for launch on an Indian rocket. The catch? They are ridesharing with Team Indus who happen to be short on funds to pay for the rocket launch. If Team Indus can’t come up with the necessary funds to pay for their launch, then Team Hakuto will be out of the running to the win the Google Lunar X Prize.

I recently interviewed Dr. Kazuya Yoshida of Tohoku University who is also the Chief Technology Officer for Hakuto. We talked about Hakuto’s Google Lunar X Prize aspirations and plans beyond the competition.

If their rover can’t fly on the Team Indus launch it might just share a ride on a future Astrobotic mission. Regardless of the outcome of the Google Lunar X Prize, ispace which manages Hakuto, has emerged as a serious player in the quest for moon riches.

Moon Express

For Canadians, Moon Express offers a link to the Google Lunar X Prize with expats Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO, and Alain Berinstain, Vice President of Global Development and the former Director of Policy to the Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, as part of the management team.

This American team, based now in Florida, also has grand plans beyond the Google Lunar X Prize and have raised over US$45M to execute their business plan. Winning the Google Lunar X Prize and adding the prize money to their available pool of funding is important to Moon Express, but not critical. Bob Richards has been stressing for several years now that the company is much more than a team wanting to win the Google Lunar X Prize. They want to provide organizations a platform to access the moon and eventually access the resources of the moon for commercial profit.

At press time SpaceQ could not confirm the whether their spacecraft will be ready for their upcoming launch. In previous interviews Bob Richards had stated they would be ready, but there’s been little new information on the status of the spacecraft.

What we do know for certain is that they are scheduled to launch on a Rocket Lab launch vehicle in the first quarter of 2018. Rocket Lab was to have conducted their second test flight by now, however weather and few minor issues along with the holiday period have rescheduled that launch for early January. That launch is critical to Moon Express.

Sources indicate that Moon Express is scheduled to be on the third Rocket Lab launch. If the upcoming second launch by Rocket Lab is successful and the Moon Express spacecraft is ready, then they have a shot of winning the Google Lunar X Prize. If the Moon Express spacecraft ins’t ready, then they won’t win the Google Lunar X Prize.

They have stated they will fly in 2018 regardless, and are one of the companies that have emerged as winners from the Google Lunar X Prize.

In July I interviewed Bob Richards and we discussed their near term and long term plans.

SpaceIL

SpaceIL, the team from Israel is an effort from the whole country.  The non-profit organization was created by three young engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub in 2011. Their goal is not to just reach the moon, but to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon.

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

At this time their spacecraft is ready however they are short on funds. On December 12th the team issued a press release stating they needed to raise another US$20M by the end of the year.

Now, according to Space.com they have until tomorrow to raise an outstanding US$7.5M or the dream of Israel being the 4th country to land on the moon comes to an end. Even if they raise the funds, they’re manifested on a SpaceX launch as a secondary payload in March according to source. So not only are they facing a funding shortage, the SpaceX cadence could derail their efforts if any of the launches slip.

SpaceIL is also emerging as a winner in from the Google Lunar X Prize. Even if they don’t win they will continue on and have engaged the nation. Israel will be a factor in the future exploration of the moon.

Synergy Moon

Synergy Moon, is a mix of teams, basically a united nations team. The team is 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.

Synergy Moon is planning on using Interorbital Systems (IOS) Neptune rocket. The problem, the rocket is still in testing and development and it seems very unlikely it will be ready in time for the prize deadline. Other than water-flow test in October there’s been no news from either Synergy Moon or Interorbital. Also, there’s no news on their spacecraft.

At this point they may fly in 2018 if they have a spacecraft ready, but as a contender for the Google Lunar X Prize, I would say their chances are slim to none. I can’t say that Synergy Moon is a winner when compared to the other teams in the competition. However, many of the individuals involved will likely go on to other ventures moon related.

Team Indus

Team Indus of India has a very large nation rooting for them. 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). There biggest obstacle to winning the Google Lunar X Prize is that they are short on funds to pay for the mission and according to media report out of India, have some technical issues to deal with.

What technical issues that need to be resolved seem like a minor problem compared to the funding issue. They are short by US$35M, not an inconsequential sum of money. At this point needing to raise a very large sum of money may very well derail their shot at winning the prize.

Team Indus is a borderline winner. The fact they’ve had such a hard time raising funds is not good. But India is an emerging space power regardless, and has accomplished much.

Astrobotic

Astrobotic is no longer in the Google Lunar X Prize having withdraw to focus on their business plan and executing it on their timeline. The Pittsburgh company, which was spun out from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, is clearly another winner that emerged from the Google Lunar X Prize. With a manifest of payloads that are growing, and a launch date in 2019 with United Launch Alliance for their first lunar spacecraft, Astrobotic is another player to watch in the future exploration of the moon.

MDA

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 18 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 25 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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