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GLXP: Google's Mission to the Moon

Submitted By: 

Neha Rastogi

After choosing five finalists from a group of 16 teams, the Google Lunar X Prize Competition (GLXP) has reached its final stage. In this race, 5 teams are now competing with each other for prize money worth 20 Million USD. To register a victory in the challenge, the teams have to launch a spacecraft to the lunar surface, explore it by covering at least 500 meters, and then send back high-definition videos and images. The first lunar lander, which succeeds to accomplish all these tasks by the end of this year i.e. 31st December 2017, will be declared as the winner.

The Google Lunar X Prize teams competing in the final stage include SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (USA), Synergy Moon (International), Team Indus (India) and Hakuto (Japan). In order to secure a position in the final stage, the teams were required to book a rocket to launch their respective space crafts and then getting the contract verified by X Prize Foundation. Apparently, they had to get the verification done before the end of 2016 and hence the 5 teams that achieved this target, were given the green signal to proceed in the competition.

Google Lunar X Prize Competition

                                          Google Lunar X Prize Competition (Image Courtesy: Google Lunar X Prize)                                                                        

Finalists of the Google Lunar X Prize Contest

When the registrations were closed on 31st December 2010, it was found that 32 teams had registered, but later, only 16 teams actively participated in the contest. In February 2014, the judging panel selected 5 teams including Astrobotic, Moon Express, Team Indus, Part Time Scientists, and Hakuto. These were required to accomplish certain milestones that were outlined in the submissions through testing and mission simulations, based on their proposals as to how they would achieve the targets. However later, the teams which were successful in securing an approved launch contract with Prize X foundation were able to qualify for the final stage.

These teams competing in the finals to reach the lunar surface are discussed below.

1. SpaceIL

SpaceIL Moon Lander

SpaceIL Moon Lander (Image Courtesy: Google Lunar X Prize)

SpaceIL is an Israel-based nonprofit organization which was founded in 2011. It was the first team in the competition to sign a verified launch to the moon in October 2015. The agreement was signed with an American SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the launch is scheduled for the end of 2017. Instead of a rover, SpaceIL is using a Hop concept so as to conserve mass. In this system, the spacecraft will land on the moon and then take off again with the fuel left in the propulsion system. Afterward, it will land 500 meters away as per the GLXP criteria.

2. Moon Express

Moon Express Lander

Moon Express Lander (Image Courtesy: Google Lunar X Prize)

Moon Express is a privately financed commercial space company founded in August 2010. It was announced by XPRIZE in December 2015 that Moon Express was the second team in the contest to have received an approved launch contract. The team has contracted with rocket Lab USA and their lunar mission will be using Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket to launch the MX-1E Lunar Lander.

Although the Electron has yet to make its debut flight, the tests will be conducted in early 2017. The team has a near term goal to render cost effective lunar missions while the long term goal is to unlock the resources found on the moon for the benefit of humans.

3. Synergy Moon

Synergy Moon Rover

Synergy Moon Rover (Image Courtesy: Popular Science)

Synergy Moon is an amalgamation of the groups namely InterPlanetary Ventures, the Human Synergy Project, and Interorbital Systems. It’s an international group with its members hailing from more than 15 countries. It became the third finalist in the contest to receive an approval for the 2017 Lunar Mission. The Interorbital Systems will be the launch provider for the mission while the Neptune 8 rocket will act as the launcher. The lunar mission is scheduled to take place by the second half of 2017 at an open ocean location off the California coast.

The team aims at introducing technological innovations which will allow personal satellite launches, cost-effective solar system exploration, and manned orbital travel.

4. Team Indus

TeamIndus Rover

TeamIndus Rover (Image Courtesy: bbc)

TeamIndus is a Bengaluru-based startup, which is the fourth team to reach the final stage of the Moon 2.0 contest. The team has also won a 1 Million USD milestone prize for the landing parameter. Its lander is named HHK-1 while the rover is named ECA i.e. ‘Ek Choti si Asha’ (a small hope). The team plans to launch the rovers by ISRO’s PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle).

A clear cut advantage of TeamIndus is that it’s the only team with a contracted rocket that has been to the moon previously. The launch is scheduled to take place on December 28th, 2017 in Sriharikota. After the lift-off, the rocket will insert the spacecraft into an elliptical transfer orbit followed by which the craft will travel on its own for a 21-day journey to the moon.

5. Hakuto

Hakuto Rover

Hakuto Rover (Image Courtesy: shakaika)

Hakuto, a group of experienced individuals, was formed in the year 2008 after being inspired by the announcement of the Google Lunar X Prize challenge. The team has a unique “dual rover” system consisting of a two-wheeled “Tetris” and four-wheeled “Moonraker”. There is also a hyperbolic mirror camera system on the Moonraker which captures 360-degree images. As far as the launch is concerned, the team has signed an agreement with TeamIndus to share the ride implying that it will be accompanied by an India-based team on the PSLV rocket.

Origin of the Contest

Dr. Peter Diamandis, who was the CEO of Blastoff! Corporation had this vision to land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface. Although the Blastoff! The initiative was unsuccessful; it paved the way for the GLXP. Earlier, Dr. Peter had approached NASA to sponsor the contest but since it’s a government agency funded by US taxes, it agreed to award only the teams from the USA. Then he planned to reach out to different space agencies but there were certain setbacks regarding the budget.

After that, Dr. Diamandis discussed the idea to Larry Page and Sergey Bin (Co-Founders of Google) at an XPRIZE fundraiser event. They not only agreed to sponsor the contest but also increased the prize purse from 20 Million USD to 30 Million USD. Later on, the Google Lunar XPRIZE was announced on 13th September 2007.

Prize Money of GLXP

The Google X Prize announced to offer prizes worth 30 Million USD for the privately funded teams who need to launch a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface. It has to travel at least 500 meters on the moon and transmit back high-definition images and videos to the earth. The first team to complete these tasks will be awarded the grand prize worth 20 Million USD whereas the second team in the race will receive the second prize worth 5 Million USD.

Besides, there are certain other tasks apart from the basic requirements which can help the teams earn an extra amount of money over the grand or second prize. These additional tasks include traveling 10 times the basic requirement (i.e. a distance of 5,000 meters), capturing images of the Apollo program hardware or any other man-made objects, surviving a night on the lunar surface, or verifying the detection of water ice on the moon.

Furthermore, there will be a “Diversity Prize” worth 1 Million USD which will be distributed among all the 16 teams that have shown active participation in the GLXP. Thus each of them will be receiving prize money worth USD 6,250.

As per Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar X Prize, “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.”

Latest Update:

As per a recent report by Quartz, the teams are having a rough time bracing for the final race. SpaceIL's rocket is still in the queue for launch but apparently, it won't be able to launch before 2018. The team is facing certain technical challenges causing the delay. Another team Moon Express has got all the funding and approval but it still has to launch its first flight test. Moving on, Team Indus in spite of having secured the most reliable launch vehicle, is still struggling to raise $70 Million for financing the launch. 

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