Google Lunar X Prize Extends Competition Deadline

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WASHINGTON — The X Prize Foundation announced Dec. 16 that it was once again extending the deadline of a $30 million competition to land commercial spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.

The foundation said it decided to extend the deadline of the Google Lunar X Prize by one year, to the end of 2016, because of technical and fiscal challenges the 18 teams currently in the competition have faced to build a spacecraft that can land on the Moon and travel at least 500 meters across the surface.

“We know the mission we are asking teams to accomplish is extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of the financial considerations,” Robert Weiss, vice chairman and president of the X Prize Foundation, said in a statement. “It is for this reason that we have decided to extend the competition timeline.”

The one-year extension, however, is contingent on at least one team providing the prize organizers by the end of 2015 with “documentation of a scheduled launch.” The competition’s judges will determine what constitutes adequate documentation of a launch, X Prize Foundation spokesman Eric Desatnik said Dec. 16.

Google Lunar X Prize teams have claimed in the past to have launch contracts or other arrangements to send their spacecraft to the Moon. In August 2012, Spanish team Barcelona Moon Team announced a contract with China Great Wall Industries Corp. for a 2014 launch on a Long March 2C rocket.

In August 2013, Barcelona Moon Team announced the launch had shifted to June 2015. The team has not provided any public updates on its activities since February, according to the team’s website.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic has previously stated it has purchased a Falcon 9 launch from SpaceX for its lunar lander, which had been scheduled for launch in October 2015. In a statement Dec. 16, the company said it was now planning a launch in the second half of 2016, without identifying its choice of launch vehicle.

The one-year extension is not the first time the X Prize Foundation has changed the competition’s deadlines. When the organization announced the prize in September 2007, the $20 million grand prize was available only through the end of 2012. That prize would then decrease to $15 million and expire at the end of 2014.

Prize organizers later extended the competition to the end of 2015 and eliminated the decrease that would have taken effect two years ago. For a time, the prize rules called for reducing the grand prize from $20 million to $15 million if a government mission landed on the Moon first, but in November 2013 organizers removed the so-called “government landing penalty” weeks before the landing of China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft.

The X Prize Foundation also announced Dec. 16 the first awards of “milestone prizes” to teams that completed technical achievements in the development of their spacecraft. It awarded to Astrobotic $500,000 for demonstrating the mobility system of its rover, and $250,000 for its camera system.

In a statement, Astrobotic chief executive John Thornton said the money would be used to continue development of those technologies. “We feel confident that we can land on the Moon in 2016 and show that a private company can set the course for future lunar exploration,” he said.

The X Prize Foundation established the milestone prizes in 2013 to help support the development of key technologies needed for their lunar landers. In February, judges selected five teams as finalists for the prizes: Astrobotic, Hakuto, Moon Express, Part-Time Scientists, and Team Indus.

The prizes, which include $1 million for demonstrating a lunar landing system, have a total value of $6 million. Any team that wins milestone prizes and goes on to win the grand prize or the $5-million second prize would have the value of the milestone prizes deducted from the prize purse. Teams do not need to compete for or win a milestone prize to be eligible for the overall competition.

Any remaining milestone prize awards will be announced at a ceremony in San Francisco on Jan. 26, Desatnik said.