The Google Lunar XPrize Race Is Officially On

Illustration: SpaceIL
Israel's SpaceIL aims for the moon in 2017

Today, the Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP) announced that Israeli team SpaceIL is the first to sign a verified launch contract that covers the first leg of its journey to the moon. The educational nonprofit’s spacecraft is slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2017.

This is huge news for the GLXP, which is offering at least US $20 million to the first private team to land on the moon and perform certain tasks. The lunar deadline is currently set at the end of 2017, but a more pressing deadline has been looming for quite some time.

Until now, we were just months away from what could have been the contest’s real expiration date. According to the present rules, if no team showed evidence of a launch agreement by the end of 2015, the contest would be over.

With SpaceIL’s contract, at least one team is now officially in the running for the prize. “It really is the new space race now,” GLXP’s senior director Chanda Gonzales says.

As I explained earlier this year, finding a way to get off the ground has been big challenge for GLXP competitors. Rocket berths are expensive, and while a team could potentially launch more cheaply as a secondary payload, it’s a tough pitch when you’re proposing adding a spacecraft loaded with potentially explosive rocket fuel.

“It’s more than tricky,” says SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman. “We found it almost impossible.” Privman explains that the team at one point had been working on securing a launch with Russia. “There we managed to get an initial agreement, but it failed due to geopolitical issues.” Attempts to secure a berth as a secondary also failed, he says, so “we decided to change the game.”

In the end, the team signed a contract with Seattle-based launch broker Spaceflight. SpaceIL’s craft will launch in a cluster containing more than 20 payloads, each contracting with Spaceflight. The launch will cost SpaceIL more than US $10 million, Privman says. (It’s not clear how much more than $10 million the actual fee is, but it’s likely a fraction of the oft-quoted “front-door price” for a whole Falcon 9, some $60 million.)

According to the revised GLXP rules laid out in May, any remaining teams who wish to compete must provide notification of a launch contract by the end of next year. But it may not take that long before we see other teams join the starting line.

Last week, aspiring lunar mining company Moon Express announced that it has signed a launch contract with Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based start-up that’s hoping to drive down the cost of space access. 

 The contract is for five launches, totalling about US $30 million, Daven Maharaj, Moon Express vice president of operations told me on Friday.

Moon Express hopes to launch on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which is expected to begin test launches shortly. Moon Express has reserved two Electron launches in 2017, which could be a good move if there are any issues with the new rocket. “There is definitely some risk there,” Maharaj says. “That’s one of the advantages—by picking two slots we’re basically guaranteeing ourselves a scheduled relaunch.”

The GLXP has yet to receive the launch contract documentation from Moon Express, Gonzales says. When it does, the agreement will be evaluated as the SpaceIL one was, she says, on both financial and technical terms. 

Of course, even with a more established company, no flight can be guaranteed, and no flight date is set in stone. SpaceX is still working on resuming flights following a launch failure in June. “I believe that [the delay] shouldn’t affect the manifest in the second half of 2017,” SpaceIL’s Privman says. “But you know that predicting is very unpredictable.”

Even with these uncertainties, it’s exciting to see the Google Lunar XPrize move into this new stage. The competition was first announced in 2007, and its original deadline for claiming the full top prize was 2012. It’s been a long road. Perhaps one day soon it will end with a few new landers dipping their feet in lunar regolith.

Follow Rachel Courtland on Twitter at @rcourt.


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