Former Google Lunar X Prize teams still working on lunar landers
LOS ANGELES — Two former competitors in the Google Lunar X Prize are continuing to pursue commercial lunar landers that could launch as soon as late 2019.
In separate presentations at the International Moon Village Workshop & Symposium here Nov. 5, representatives of PTScientists and Team Indus said they are working on versions of landers originally intended to compete for the now-expired prize.
Team Indus, one of the finalists for the prize before it ended in March, says it has one “qualified” lander in storage now and is working on a much larger version. That lander, originally designed for the Google Lunar X Prize, is capable of placing 50 kilograms on the surface of the moon.
That payload capacity, said Rahul Narayan, founder of Team Indus, is likely too small for most commercial purposes. The company is now working on a much larger lander, called Z-02, capable of placing 500 kilograms on the lunar surface. The lander, he said, would be compatible with various launch vehicles, including those operated by Arianespace, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
Narayan didn’t give a schedule for building or launching that larger lander. He said after his presentation Team Indus would still like to fly the first lander, perhaps after making changes to increase its payload capacity to 60 to 70 kilograms.
“We are pivoting our model from being operators of a mission to being a supplier or partners to other people who want to operate missions,” he said. “We see ourselves as the people who will build the technology, build the design, do the qualification, and then be able to offer these services to international customers.”
Narayan also suggested that Team Indus could find a way to participate in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where the agency plans to buy payload space on commercial landers. The CLPS program requires prime contractors as well as those companies that build “space transportation vehicles” operate in the United States.
However, foreign companies can partner with U.S.-led teams, as Japan’s ispace has done on a CLPS proposal led by Draper. Narayan said Team Indus was partnering with a company on CLPS, but could not disclose details about that work at this time.
PTScientists, a German team that failed to make the cut in early 2017 for the five finalists after the X Prize Foundation concluded it did not have a valid launch contract, is still working on its first lander, now scheduled for launch in late 2019.
The company had grown considerably this year in preparation for the mission, said Torsten Kriening, chief commercial offer of PTScientists. The company had “survived” on 10 to 12 people for years, growing to 20 early this year. PTScientists is now up to 65 people.
That first mission, which Kriening acknowledged could slip into 2020, will travel to the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon, in the vicinity of the Apollo 17 landing site. Two rovers on the lander will explore the region, including plans to examine the lunar rover left behind after the Apollo 17 mission, to see what condition the vehicle is in after nearly 50 years.
Additional missions will follow on a cadence of about once every 18 to 24 months, he said. A second mission will travel to the lunar south pole region, and later missions will carry in situ resource utilization experiments.
PTScientists is supported by a number of “blue chip” partners, including Audi, Vodafone and Red Bull Media House, a subsidiary of beverage company Red Bull. “We can’t do it alone. We are a small company,” he said. Now, he said, non-space companies are approaching them about potential partnerships.
For example, the rovers are “Audi Lunar Quattro” vehicles, and Audi has already used the rovers in advertising. “We will have the fastest Audi on the moon,” he said, “with a top speed of three and a half kilometers per hour.”