Rivals Exploring Alliances In Lunar X Prize Competition

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SAN FRANCISCO — In an effort to clear the technical and financial hurdles standing between competitors and $30 million in prizes for privately funded Moon missions, some Google Lunar X Prize teams are contemplating the possibility of pooling resources.

“When you look at the amount of money needed to stage a competition, it is going to be a challenge for multiple teams to complete the mission,” said Seamus Tuohy, director of space systems at Draper Laboratory, which is developing guidance, navigation and control systems for two Lunar X Prize teams, the Rocket City Space Pioneers and Next Giant Leap. “You would rather be half of a team that makes it to the Moon instead of a whole team that doesn’t.”

To date, the Google Lunar X Prize competition has attracted 26 individual teams racing to land a robot on the Moon, travel 500 meters and send high-definition video imagery to Earth by the end of 2015. The first team to achieve those goals is slated to win a $20 million grand prize. If a government mission reaches the Moon first, the grand prize will fall to $15 million. The second team to reach the Moon will receive $5 million. The X Prize Foundation also is offering $4 million in bonus prizes to teams that complete additional objectives including detecting water, traveling 5 kilometers and landing near an Apollo site, according to the X Prize Foundation’s website.

There is nothing in the Google Lunar X Prize rules that would preclude teams from merging, sharing a launch vehicle or hitching a ride on a competitor’s lander, said Alexandra Hall, senior director for the Google Lunar X Prize at the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif. “It makes a lot of sense given that we have some teams with differing strengths in lander, rover and launcher technologies,” Hall added in a Sept. 6 email.

During the Google Lunar X Prize team summit held in July in Mountain View, Calif., X Prize officials encouraged teams to consider sharing a rocket to the Moon, Hall said. “Of course, the order in which they get off the rocket, etc., would be something they’d have to come to an agreement between themselves on,” she added.

David Gump, president of Astrobotic Technology Inc., said the major challenges in the competition are obtaining a launch vehicle, developing the technology to land on the Moon and travel across its surface and raising enough money for the project. “We think the most straightforward way for teams to combine would be for teams that want to buy rides to the Moon to buy space on our lander,” Gump said. “Then, they could just develop the rover.”

The cost of that ride would be determined, in part, by which team would leave the lander first in an attempt to win the competition’s grand prize. “If someone wants to pay to go first, that is certainly something we would consider,” Gump said. The Astrobotic team also would consider reducing the cost of lander space for any team willing to leave later. “If we go first and don’t make it, they could try,” he said.

Astrobotic Technology officials have signed a memorandum of understanding with one X Prize team to study ways to transport the team’s rover to the Moon and are in discussions to perform similar services for a second team. Gump declined to name those teams.

Astrobotic Technologies has identified the Google Lunar X Prize as one potential revenue source for the firm’s first mission. The team’s primary focus is on pursuing a long-term business of delivering payloads to the Moon for government space agencies, academic researchers and companies. The team has signed a contract with Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., to travel to the Moon on a Falcon 9 rocket and is aiming for the mission to occur in the spring of 2014, Gump said.

Similarly, Moon Express is planning a series of Moon missions beginning in 2014 to look for lunar resources that are valuable on Earth. Bob Richards, chief executive for the Moon Express team, said he would welcome some incentive, from the X Prize Foundation or another source, to bring Google Lunar X Prize teams that are more focused on education and outreach onto some of the leading teams as payload suppliers, system suppliers or outreach coordinators. “When you are concentrating on a technical solution, it is hard to pay attention to education and outreach,” he said.

To identify the leading contenders to win the race to the Moon, Richards said, one can look at the teams NASA selected in October 2010 to provide the space agency with information on robotic lunar landing vehicles as part of the Innovative Lunar Data Demonstration program: Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh; Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass.; Dynetics Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.; Earthrise Space Inc. of Orlando, Fla.; Moon Express Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.; and Team FredNet of Huntsville.

Richards also said the idea of sharing launch costs is likely to appeal to Google Lunar X Prize teams. “You still want a competition, but it is intriguing to think of more than one team on the same rocket,” Richards said.

That type of cooperation could help more than one team to reach the Moon, industry officials said. “For most of the folks involved in the Google Lunar X Prize, winning is not the end goal,” Tuohy said. “A team won’t win, disband and go away.”

Instead, participants are eager to establish ongoing programs using innovative technology demonstrated during the X Prize competition. “The best thing to come out of this competition would be to show the possibility of doing smaller science missions at a higher tempo with a smaller budget,” Tuohy said. “As long as someone wins the competition, all the teams become more viable. It will open the door to new ways to conduct science.”