In 2007, Google launched the Lunar XPrize, a competition that will dole out $30 million in prizes to the first privately funded teams to land a robot on the moon. Since then, it’s been tough going. China managed to transport a probe before any of the XPrize competitors, in 2013. The initial early 2015 competition deadline was pushed back to 2017 out of necessity — only two teams managed to secure a launch contract. But there has been a promising development. On Tuesday, Google announced that five competitors have signed launch contracts that allow them to launch to the moon by the end of 2017.
Among the five teams is Hakuto, a Japanese team with a pair of rovers; Moon Express, an American team that wants to collect moon samples for scientific study, signed a three-launch contract with Rocket Lab for 2020; SpaceIL, an Israel-based nonprofit is developing novel craft that explores the moon by taking big hops instead of driving around, will join a future SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch; Synergy Moon, an international team, has partnered with Interorbital Systems for launch; and Team Indus, an Indian team that will ride with the Indian Space Research Organization’s vehicle.
They’re taking the place of the competitors who’ve dropped out — more than 30 signed on to compete in 2007. Part-Time Scientists, a German teamed that had partnered with Audi to develop its lunar rover, canceled plans for a near-term launch. Carnegie Mellon University’s Astrobotic recently delayed its launch until 2019.
Google and XPrize said that the $1 million Diversity Prize, initially to be awarded to teams that make “significant strides in promoting ethnic diversity within Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines,” will be split among all remaining teams.
The reason for all the challenges? There is more to the XPrize than meets the eye. Once teams’ rovers reach the moon’s surface, they must travel more than 1,640 feet and beam high-definition images and video back to Earth to claim the grand prize. The first team to do so will claim $20 million, while the second team will earn $5 million. Competitors can earn bonuses by completing tasks like traveling 10 times the baseline distance requirement (three miles), capturing images of the remains of the Apollo program or other man-made objects on the Moon, verifying from the lunar surface the recent detection of water ice on the moon, or surviving a lunar night.
The competition ends on December 31. The remaining competitors must launch their rovers prior to the deadline in order to remain eligible.
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