5 Lunar X Prize Teams Land Payday; Only 2 Landed Hardware


WASHINGTON — The X Prize Foundation awarded more than $5 million in intermediate prizes to five teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition Jan. 26, but those teams’ achievements varied widely, even in the same category of the competition.

The foundation handed out $5.25 million in “milestone prizes” at a San Francisco ceremony to five of the eighteen teams competing in the overall prize competition, rewarding them for progress in key technical areas towards the goal of landing a spacecraft on the surface of the moon.

Three teams each won $1 million by demonstrating landing system technologies: Astrobotic of Pittsburgh; Moon Express of Mountain View, California; and Team Indus of Bengaluru, India. Astrobotic, Hakuto of Tokyo, and the multinational team Part-Time Scientists each won $500,000 for their mobility systems. Astrobotic, Moon Express, and Part-Time Scientists also won $250,000 each for their imaging systems.

The teams were not in competition with each other for the milestone prizes, nor did they have to achieve standardized milestones. Instead, teams submitted proposals in late 2013 of technical goals they planned to achieve in the next year, said Andrew Barton, the director of technical operations for the competition, in a Jan. 28 interview.

Judges then evaluated the proposals using several criteria, including technical feasibility and how useful those plans were towards winning the grand prize. They selected five teams to compete for eleven prizes. “The majority of the teams submitted proposals,” Barton said, although some “chose to focus on other aspects of the prize.”

Because each team developed its own milestone goals, their accomplishments varied widely. That was most evident in the landing category, where teams’ achievements ranged from construction of a mockup to flight tests of a lander prototype.

Moon Express' MTV-1X test vehicle performed a tethered flight test at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Moon Express
Moon Express’ MTV-1X test vehicle performed a tethered flight test at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Moon Express

Moon Express tested its lander prototype, MTV-1X, in a series of tethered flight tests at the Kennedy Space Center in late 2014. Moon Express chief executive Bob Richards said in a Jan. 28 interview that the company is planning a second series of test flights in February.

The X Prize Foundation acknowledged that Moon Express’s tests were more advanced than the other teams. “They were the only team to flight test a prototype of their lander,” said Robert Weiss, vice chairman and president of the foundation, in a Jan. 27 statement.

Astrobotic won its $1 million for two different sets of tests, chief executive John Thornton said in a Jan. 28 interview. The company tested its landing software using Xombie, a suborbital reusable rocket built by Masten Space Systems, in Mojave, California. In those test flights, part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, Astrobotic’s software took control of Xombie and guided it to a powered vertical landing.

Astrobotic also tested the igniter for its lander’s propulsion system, using an environmentally friendly “green” propellant. Thornton declined to identify that propellant, saying it is closely linked to the company providing it, which Astrobotic has not yet publicly announced as part of its team.

Team Indus did not respond to SpaceNews inquiries about its milestone achievements. Barton said the team constructed a structural model of its planned lander and mounted weights on it to simulate the distribution of mass on the actual spacecraft. That model successfully completed vibration tests, as well as a drop from a height of one meter.

Masten's rocket-powered Xombie technology demonstration vehicle rockets skyward during a flight test of Astrobotic Technology's autonomous landing system. Credit: NASA
Masten’s rocket-powered Xombie technology demonstration vehicle rockets skyward during a flight test of Astrobotic Technology’s autonomous landing system. Credit: NASA

Two of the eleven possible prizes went unclaimed. Team Indus failed to win a $250,000 imaging prize and Moon Express did not win a $500,000 mobility prize.

While most teams are developing rovers in order to meet a requirement to travel at least 500 meters across the lunar surface, Moon Express will instead have its lander lift off again and fly the required distance. Richards said he had received no feedback about why their lander failed to win the mobility prize. “It’s a mystery to us,” he said.

All eighteen teams are still in the running for the $20 million grand prize and a $5 million second prize. Teams must successfully land a privately-developed lander on the moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit high-definition video. Milestone prize winners who go on to win the grand or second prizes will have the value of their earlier prizes deducted from the prize purse.

In December, the X Prize Foundation announced that it was extending the competition’s deadline one year to the end of 2016. However, that extension is contingent on at least one company making launch arrangements for its lander by the end of 2015. Barton said that, to date, no team has notified the foundation of a launch deal.

Barton said while he couldn’t rule out another extension, he was hopeful that teams would be ready to launch by late next year. “We’re confident that one or two teams, at least, will make an attempt,” he said.