Moon race: final five teams will compete for Google's Lunar XPrize

Five companies are racing to land a functioning rover on the lunar surface. 

Michael Probst/AP
An aircraft passes the moon over Frankfurt, Germany, on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

The space race is back, but this time the competitors are companies, with Google serving as a friendly referee.

Five international teams have qualified as finalists in a race to the moon worth millions, the XPrize Foundation announced on Tuesday. Funded by Google, this Lunar XPrize aims to stimulate the development of space technologies by rewarding the first team to land an operational rover on the moon’s surface with $20 million, a feat previously accomplished only by the Russian, American, and Chinese governments. 

The final five are: Florida-based Moon Express, Japan’s Hakuto, Israel’s SpaceIL, India’s Team Indus, and an international team composed of members hailing from over 15 countries, known as Synergy Moon.

"We're thrilled to have five contenders that are working from all over the world on this one mission," XPrize Senior Director Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer said in an email to Reuters.

All they have to do now is get there. To make it to this final stage, each team had to find someone to take them, signing a launch contract by end of 2016. Rides into space are in short supply, but SpaceIL will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Synergy Moon will rely on American aerospace company Interorbital Systems, and Team Indus and Hakuto will share a ride on the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Moon Express is betting on new aerospace company Rocket Lab, which will soon begin test flights.

The contest’s fine print requires that the winning team launch before the end of this year and accomplish, at minimum, a soft moon landing, a rover excursion of 1640 feet, and the transmission of high-definition footage back to Earth. Google will also reward a number of stretch goals such as detecting water, surviving the lunar night, or imaging relics of the Apollo program with prizes ranging from $1 to $4 million.

Google has extended the deadline for the contest, which was first announced a decade ago, three times. Contest organizers say the current timeline is firm, however, so this is the final chance for the five teams that remain out of what was an original field of 33.

Some teams are aiming at more than just the prize money. Japan’s Hakuto has scientific ambitions, hoping to explore mysterious holes in the lunar surface that some suspect hide underground caves or lava tubes. Such formations could serve as pre-made habitats for future moon bases, shielding inhabitants from dangerous radiation.

Moon Express is more business minded. Their long term plans include a lunar delivery service catering to companies with mining interests.

The final prize winner may not be decided until early next year, but Google is already handing out money. In addition to $5.25 million in “milestone” prizes along the way, the company recently announced that its $1 million diversity prize would be split between 16 teams for their outreach efforts.

“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,” said Ms. Gonzales-Mowrer.

The XPrize foundation currently organizes nine active competitions that aim to spur “moon shot” breakthroughs in areas such as artificial intelligence, water security, and education. The original XPrize encouraged the private development of suborbital spaceflight technology, and the winning vehicle went on to become the basis for space tourism company Virgin Galactic.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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