Google Lunar X Prize Teams Partner To Share Risks and Rewards


WASHINGTON — Two teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition announced plans Feb. 23 to work together in an arrangement that could ultimately result in several teams sharing the prize purse.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology said it reached an agreement with Tokyo-based Team Hakuto to carry the Japanese team’s two small rovers to the moon on Astrobotic’s lander. The Hakuto’s rovers, named Moonraker and Tetris, will fly with Andy, a rover being built by Carnegie Mellon University for Astrobotic.

In a conference call with reporters, Astrobotic Chief Executive John Thornton said that the three rovers will race each other after landing to achieve the prize requirement of traveling at least 500 meters across the lunar surface. “It will be like a Formula One race on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Thornton said the two teams will share the costs of the launch of the overall spacecraft. Should one of the teams win the prize, the proceeds would be shared by the two teams depending on which team won. The ratio of that split is part of the agreement, but he declined to disclose the specific percentages.

That arrangement, Thornton said, reduces uncertainty for potential investors regarding winning at least a share of the $20 million grand prize. “It mitigates the risk,” he said. “It ensures that each team that comes with us, regardless of performance, ends up with a known amount of money.”

Team Hakuto vibration tests
Team Hakuto performing vibration testing for its lunar rovers. Credit: Team Hakuto


For Hakuto, the partnership was born of necessity: the team, which won a $500,000 milestone prize in January for demonstrating progress on its mobility system, has focused its efforts solely on developing a rover. “Hakuto is only developing rovers. We decided not to develop landers,” team leader Takeshi Hakamada said. “We had to choose a lander from some other team.”

Astrobotic is planning to launch its lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. That vehicle will be able to place 2,500 kilograms on the surface of the moon, of which Astrobotic has set aside 270 kilograms of payload for other customers, such as Hakuto.

Thornton said about half of that payload allowance is still available for other customers, including additional Google Lunar X Prize teams. “More than half of the X Prize teams are talking to us about potentially flying together to the moon,” he said, adding that he expected “a small handful” of teams to sign up with Astrobotic.

Should other teams sign up to fly their rovers, they would be included in the prize-sharing agreement in proportion to the mass of their payloads. Thornton said he plans to finalize the payloads and acquire the Falcon 9 this year for a launch in the second half of 2016.

Astrobotic Andy rover
Astrobotic’s Andy lunar rover. Credit: Carnegie Mellon

Astrobotic, which won three milestone prizes in January with a total value of $1.75 million, is continuing to develop the autonomous landing system and thrusters for its lander, Thornton said. Carnegie Mellon is working separately on preparing the Andy rover for flight.

The Google Lunar X Prize offers a grand prize of $20 million and a second prize of $5 million to the first and second teams to land a privately developed spacecraft on the surface of the moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit video and other data. In December, the X Prize Foundation extended the competition’s deadline a year to the end of 2016, provided at least one team makes launch arrangements by the end of 2015.

The partnership between Astrobotic and Hakuto is not surprising to prize organizers, who said they expected teams to partner or merge as the competition deadline neared. “The X Prize is very happy to see this kind of cooperation between teams,” said Andrew Barton, director of technical operations for the competition. “This is one early example of how we expect, in the future, a new space industry ecosystem to grow up around teams.”