SAN FRANCISCO — Teams competing for $30 million in awards as part of the Google Lunar X Prize are likely to have one additional year to reach the lunar surface and win the $20 million grand prize under a set of proposed rules issued to competitors. The proposed extension is being welcomed by many of the teams involved in the competition who face the daunting task of raising money for their efforts in a difficult financial environment.
Under preliminary Google Lunar X Prize rules, which are still under review and are expected to be finalized by summer, teams would have until Dec. 31, 2013 to reach the lunar surface, travel 500 meters and send back a data package before the first-place award decreases from $20 million to $15 million, said Will Pomerantz, senior director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif. Originally, the prize money was set to decrease to $15 million after Dec. 31, 2012.
The rules are not expected to change for the second team to reach the Moon and complete the mission. That team still would receive $5 million, and the final deadline to receive prize money would remain the same: Dec. 31, 2014, Pomerantz said. The competition includes another $5 million in prizes for teams who complete additional tasks such as traveling more than 5,000 meters and sending back imagery of Apollo mission artifacts.
Google Lunar X Prize officials are proposing an extension for the grand prize award because it has taken them longer than expected to finalize the detailed rules for the competition. When any X Prize is announced, the rules are somewhat vague. That gives the teams who enter the competition a chance to offer suggestions and comments on the proposed plan, Pomerantz said.
Bob Richards, founder and chief executive of the Odyssey Moon team, called the proposed extension of the grand prize deadline “helpful and necessary” because it also gives teams more time to raise money. “When the Google Lunar X Prize was announced three years ago, the world was in a different financial situation,” he said. “Turmoil in the global economy made it difficult to raise financing. The new plan gives us a longer on-ramp.”
Other Google Lunar X Prize teams also welcomed the proposed extension of time to win the grand prize. “Teams need more time,” said Azur Dervisagic, outreach specialist for Synergy Moon’s X Prize entry. “I hope they raise the prize money also. There is some talk of the prize money going up.”
Mike Joyce, founder of the Next Giant Leap team, declined to comment on any specific changes included in the new draft rules. “We are pleased the staff is working to update and finalize the rules for the prize,” Joyce said. “We would be happier if the rules were in place two years ago, but the sooner the better.”
One of the major challenges facing the X Prize teams is finding a ride into space that does not eat up a huge portion of the prize money being offered in the competition. “The problem of getting into orbit is considerably greater than anyone expected it to be,” said Richard Speck, Micro-Space Inc. team leader. “The market for secondary payload services is fragmented and in turmoil.”
What’s more, even those rockets that accept secondary payloads are unwilling to accept the additional risk of carrying payloads with their own propulsion systems, something that is needed to reach the Moon, Speck said. As a result, teams face the prospect of paying $10 million to $12 million dollars to launch 100-kilogram payloads — the same price that it would cost to send an entire Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 1e launch vehicle into orbit, Speck said.
“Entrepreneurial spaceflight is very promising, but typically it takes a fair amount of experience to wring out problems,” Speck said. “That is difficult when there is such a high price for any test.”
Another subject that is concerning to some members of the Google Lunar X Prize teams is the emergence of new NASA initiatives with the same goals as the X Prize: sending robotic spacecraft to the Moon. Project M, for example, is a program proposed by Johnson Space Center engineers to send a humanoid robot called Robonaut to the Moon within 1,000 days. NASA’s 2011 budget request also includes funding for the Exploration Robotic Precursor Program to send missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids to pave the way for human spaceflight activities. Under that program, NASA plans to launch at least two robotic precursor missions in 2011. “One will likely be a lunar mission to demonstrate tele-operation capability from Earth and potentially from the International Space Station, including the ability to transmit near-live video to Earth,” according to space agency budget documents.
David Gump, president of the Astrobotic Technology Inc. team, said he would prefer to see NASA demonstrate its support for the Google Lunar X Prize teams by flying technology, sending science payloads or licensing data streams from those missions. “It’s discouraging that we haven’t yet seen the declaration from NASA that we are going to do these lunar missions commercially,” Gump said.
NASA spokeswoman Ashley Edwards said the space agency strongly supports the Google Lunar X Prize and still is figuring out the best way to back the program. She added that none of the space agency’s new programs is in competition with the Google Lunar X Prize teams. The Exploration Robotic Precursor Program has not yet received congressional approval to proceed. “We are still developing the idea for that program,” she said. Once the effort receives funding, it will become better defined and NASA officials will determine whether Project M should be folded in. “Project M is still in its infancy,” Edwards said. “It is a conceptual effort to send a robot to the Moon.”
Pomerantz said NASA always has been a strong supporter of the Google Lunar X Prize and that he views the space agency’s plans for robotic lunar missions as complimentary rather than competing efforts. Lunar X Prize teams are likely to send vehicles to the Moon that are much less complex and less expensive than anything NASA would be likely to launch, he said.
Edwards agreed, adding that any NASA Moon mission would have multiple goals. “For NASA, it’s not just about getting there,” she said. “We are always asking what we can learn while we are there. We will want to learn about the environment.”
Still, NASA and the European Space Agency are likely to be among the prime beneficiaries of the technology that emerges from the Google Lunar X Prize competition, Pomerantz said. “We hope they can use our data to give heritage to flight systems and to explore possible landing sites.”