The Google LunarX Prize

There is something about the competition—a competition so intense that its outcome promises to be a game changer for humanity. A competition so huge in its very nature that its winner will claim to be the first to have brought humanities lost interest in space exploration back on track. Indeed, the Lunar X Prize competition is the competition of our generation and we are privileged to be its witness. Analogous to the spirit of St Louis when Charles Lindberg became the first person to travel across the Atlantic ocean and revolutionize the way we travel by air, the Lunar X Prize will certainly do the same for us in space.

The moon has been conquered 48 years ago; so what’s special about it? You may ask. Well, the special thing about this competition is that the final competitors—SpaceIL, Indus Team, Moon Express, Synergy Moon and Team Hakuto—are all private companies and there is minimal government involvement.

The rules have been laid out and the companies have geared up to confront the final frontier. What the winning company needs to do is simple—be the first to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back high definition video and images. With the best of the best teams trying to edge out the other, who will emerge victorious in the end is a million dollar question.

Let’s look at the individual companies and try to figure out how their performance might be:

With the budget of US$ 36 million funded mainly by philanthropists, SpaceIL aims to launch the lightest and smallest vehicle ever to the surface of the moon. Their endeavour among the competitors is unique in that they plan to meet the travel requirement of 500 meters by having the lander hop from its site of landing to a site 500 meters away.

Moon express is an American company established with the aim of competing in the google LunarX prize and ultimately mining the moon. It has had a number of associations with NASA when it was selected for US$ 30 million dollar innovative Lunar Demonstration Data Program (ILDD) in 2010, conducted several free flight tests of its flight software utilizing NASA mighty eagle lander test vehicle and lunar CATALYST initiative program in 2014. Notable also is its work with the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) to put a shoebox-sized astronomical telescope on the Moon and flight tests of its “MTV-1X” lander test vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.

Synergy moon is a company formed with the purpose of competing in the google LunarX prize and involves members from 15 different countries. It is the only team involved in the competition which has membership from multiple countries. The company will be using a lunar-direct launch of an Interorbital Systems’ modular NEPTUNE rocket to carry a lunar lander and at least one rover to the surface of the Moon.

Team Indus led by Delhi-based IT professional Rahul Narayan is the only team to participate from India. It was awarded $ 1 million for successfully completing a test of their landing system. Its lunar lander will be launched by Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The team has professionals from various backgrounds like science, technology, finance and media and it has raised US$ 35 million for the project.

Team Hakuto is a Japanese team led by Takeshi Hakamada in 2008 and it aims to finance the Google LunarX prize mission from advertising expenditure of large global companies. The team plans to launch its rover together with Team Indus through the PSLV launcher of ISRO. The team has also won a milestone prize: the mobility prize for a total of US$ 500000. The team is a global leader in space robotics and is developing a privately funded rover to explore the Moon.

If I had to choose a favourite from the above teams, it would certainly be the Moon Express. Having so much experience behind them and given their association with NASA in the past its difficult to rule them out as the favourite. However, it is a competition and one never knows who will emerge the victor. After all, history is filled with surprises where underdogs have outperformed.