Now might be the time to start keeping closer tabs on the Google Lunar X Prize. Today, five of the 18 registered teams in the competition have been named finalists for interim "Milestone Prizes". Over the coming months, they'll work to demonstrate how far they've progressed in three categories: landing systems, rover mobility, and imaging subsystems. All three technologies will be needed to make it to the moon and nab the top prize (set at $US 20 million, minus any money awarded in the interim).
An independent panel of judges selected the finalists, and two teams swept all three categories. One is the Silicon Valley-based team Moon Express. The other is Astrobotic, a company based in Pittsburgh that was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2008. (We covered some of Astrobotic's early efforts in 2009 in our special report on Mars.)
The performance of these teams might lead you to conclude that there are really only two horses left in the running. But when I caught up today with Andrew Barton, director of technical operations at the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), he told me not to read too much into the rankings. Only a handful of slots were available in each category, he said, and the two teams just so happened to be quite mature in all three.
The GLXP is now in its seventh year, but this is the first time, Barton says, that administrators have had an opportunity to take thorough stock of team progress. "We didn’t ever have a lot of insight into what the teams were doing. That wasn't required under the rules. So this is actually the first time that anyone’s had a chance to look into what the teams are doing at any level of detail," he says. "We're as interested anybody else to see what comes out of this."
The Milestone Prizes, which were announced last year, are a new addition to the GLXP competition. Barton says they're designed to highlight those teams that have made great technical strides. It's also designed to ease some of the financial strain of participation. "Obviously cash flow is very important for any start-up business," Barton says. "And space is a very expensive business."
All five will have until the end of September to compete for portions of a $6 million prize purse. Judges will be sent to see demonstrations, which Barton says should make for some exciting viewing. "We're going to see rocket vehicles flying, we're going to see rovers driving around on complicated terrain, we're going to see advanced camera systems being tested for image quality and accuracy," he says. "And all of that equipment will also be subjected to environmental tests trying to replicate the conditions in space like vacuum, extremes in temperature, and radiation."
More than six years and many interesting rover designs into the game, the burning question for me is: are any of them anywhere close to launch? Building a rover is one thing. Cobbling together enough money for a berth on a rocket is another.
In a press release posted today, Astrobotic said it aims to launch in October 2015 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but few teams have been so specific. To add to the confusion, Barton notes public announcements of launch plans might not be so set in stone: they could just indicate that launch negotiations are underway.
Barton says the GLXP administrators have little visibility into the launch vehicle arrangements. Competitors are required to notify GLXP six months before they're slated to launch and so far none have done so. "We are aware of a number of teams who are in discussion with launch service providers," he says, "but teams are not required to share that information with us nor are they required to share the details of contract negotiations at this stage."
Chances are we've got a year yet before we'll see much more on the launch front. In the meantime, these interim awards will likely capture headlines.
Rachel Courtland, an unabashed astronomy aficionado, is a former senior associate editor at Spectrum. She now works in the editorial department at Nature. At Spectrum, she wrote about a variety of engineering efforts, including the quest for energy-producing fusion at the National Ignition Facility and the hunt for dark matter using an ultraquiet radio receiver. In 2014, she received a Neal Award for her feature on shrinking transistors and how the semiconductor industry talks about the challenge.