March 04, 2013
Credit: Astrobotic Technology
Guy Norris Los Angeles
Like the Orteig prize that spurred Charles Lindbergh's 1927 transatlantic solo flight, the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP) is an unprecedented competition both in terms of potential reward and technical challenge.
As with its illustrious forebear, the GLXP is also proving a tough nut to crack. To win the prize, a privately funded team must place on the Moon's surface a robot that will then explore over a distance of at least 500 meters (1,640 ft.) and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. When the contest was first announced in 2007, the deadline for winning it was December 2012. However, with no team even close to launching by then, the organizers extended the deadline three years.
The first team will claim a $20 million grand prize, while the second team will earn $5 million. In addition, teams can also win a $1 million award for stimulating diversity in the field of space exploration and up to $4 million in bonus prizes for accomplishing additional technical tasks. These range from traveling up to 10 times as far as the basic stipulated distance to visiting the site of a previous lunar mission.
“Aside from the different prize purses, winning would effectively launch the commercial lunar economy much like Ansari did for commercial space,” says GLXP's Leo Camacho. “The teams will have effectively created commercial means and technology to get to the Moon, and this will ideally spread into more industry that is looking to do the same for various reasons. This is the first step to commercializing the Moon.”
As the GLXP enters its sixth year, the lineup of contestants is going through its biggest shake-up yet. Team SpaceIL of Israel merged with Isle of Man-based Odyssey Moon in November 2012, one of several new pairings that has seen the number of active contestants drop to 23 from 33. Since 2008, seven teams have withdrawn, including Mystical Moon, Team Selene, C-Base Open Moon, Quantum3, SCSG, Micro-Space and Advaeros. Two other groups, Rocket City Space Pioneers (RCSP) and Next Giant Leap, have also been acquired by Moon Express to create one of the most formidable teams in the lunar competition.
Based in NASA's Research Park in Moffett Field, Calif., Moon Express is led by Bob Richards and was already widely considered as a leading contender to win the GLXP before its acquisitions. Prior to the teams combining, Moon Express, RCSP and Next Giant Leap (NGL) bolstered their credentials by being awarded commercial lunar data contracts worth up to $10 million each. As part of the teaming agreement with leading RCSP partner Dynetics, based in Huntsville, Ala., Moon Express also acquired the services of RCSP team leader Tim Pickens as chief propulsion engineer. Pickens was lead propulsion designer for SpaceShipOne.
The acquisition of NGL in May 2012 was the first such event in the Lunar X Prize and brought with it a substantial body of work already undertaken by NGL and its corporate partners, which included Sierra Nevada Corp., Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Space Systems Laboratory, Aurora Flight Services, Jolted Media Group, The Center for Space Entrepreneurship (eSpace) and the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Along with Dynetics, the December teaming with RCSP then added Teledyne Brown Engineering, Andrews Space, Spaceflight Services, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Moog, the University of Alabama-Huntsville and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation.