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The XPrize’s Lunar Deadline Looms

Aspiring moon explorers now have until 2016 to win a top prize of $20 million from Google

8 min read
The XPrize’s Lunar Deadline Looms
Illustration: Matthew Hollister

Griffin is a pack mule with a mission. The four-footed spacecraft is designed to carry 1.7 metric tons of fuel in its belly. It’s girded by wide aluminum deck plates, from which robotic rovers can hang like sleeping bats. It’s built to carry time capsules and cremated remains, among other potential payloads. And one day, in the not-too-distant future, a Pittsburgh-based start-up plans to send it to the moon.

One of 18 competitors remaining in the Google Lunar XPrize, the Pittsburgh company, Astrobotic, hopes to be the first private team to make a moon landing, move 500 meters across the lunar soil, and send high-definition images and video back to Earth. If it can do all of this before any of its competitors, it stands to claim a top prize of US $20 million, provided by Google.

But they don’t call it a moon shot for nothing. Now in its eighth year, the competition has seen 15 of the original 33 teams drop out. In 2009, the prize administrators moved to extend the deadline by three years, to the end of 2015. And just a few weeks before this issue ofIEEE Spectrum went to press, the Google Lunar XPrize team informed us that the deadline would be extended by another year, to 31 December 2016.

imgData sources: Jonathan McDowell; Anatoly Zak/Russian Space Web

For many prize participants and space-news enthusiasts, the change likely comes as little surprise. Aspiring explorers face some daunting hurdles between Earth and lunar glory. First, there’s the technical challenge involved in building a lunar spacecraft capable of reaching the moon and then performing a soft landing—a feat that has so far been accomplished by only three nations: the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Then, and perhaps even more crucially, there are the financial and logistical obstacles associated with getting to space. A rocket launch can easily cost tens of millions of dollars, and it’s not easy to coordinate, particularly if you’re trying to launch on short notice or save money by piggybacking on an existing mission.

The mission is “extremely difficult and unprecedented,” both technically and financially, the XPrize Foundation said in an e-mail to Spectrum. But it’s clear that it wants competitors to get serious about leaving Earth. In addition to an extension, the new guidelines would close the contest if no team shows proof of a launch agreement by the end of 2015 . No team has yet shown such proof, an XPrize representative said.

A spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Astrobotic hopes to go to the moon by selling berths on its Griffin lander and the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket it aims to use to get to space.

The company plans to offer delivery services to three unique locations: on a lunar trajectory near Earth, an orbit around the moon, and the lunar surface. Transport all the way down is currently priced at about $1.2 million per kilogram, says CEO John Thornton.

graphic link to Fast Forward sidebar

For its maiden voyage, Astrobotic aims to send Griffin to Lacus Mortis, where there is a roughly 150-meter-wide opening in the surface, first spotted several years ago by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The pit, which is collapsed on one side, could potentially provide an easy-to-access shelter that could shield future lunar explorers from radiation and micrometeorites.

Astrobotic has already penned agreements to deliver cremated remains managed by the space-burial company Celestis, based in Houston, and a time capsule made by a Singapore-based company, Astroscale. The capsule will contain messages from children and a Japanese sports drink called Pocari Sweat. But the XPrize will be a big part of the financing for the first mission, says Thornton. SpaceX’s “front-door” price for a Falcon 9 is about $60 million, he says. To make up for the cost, Astrobotic aims to use Griffin to deliver the company’s own rover and vehicles of other lunar XPrize teams. So far, one competitor has signed on, Thornton says, and there should be space for more than half of those teams still participating.

Astrobotic now has many of the ingredients needed to perform a safe lunar landing. Building off work done more than 10 years ago for the DARPA Grand Challenge, an autonomous-vehicle competition, chief technology officer Kevin Peterson and his colleagues have built a computer-vision system designed to help the spacecraft track its progress toward the lunar landing site by comparing real-time images taken by Griffin with reference pictures of the surface.

The team has made feature-recognition algorithms that allow the spacecraft’s computer—a garden-variety, military-grade motherboard with an Intel i7 core—to process images at the speed required for a moon touchdown: roughly 10 frames per second. In June 2014, the team used this system, in concert with a scanning laser, to guide a rocket-powered vehicle built by Masten Systems down to a landing from some 260 meters in the air. The combination could also detect surface obstacles as small as a soccer ball.

Astrobiotic Griffin landerA World Away: Astrobotic’s Griffin lander, photographed in 2014 at a “mooncast” at the LaFarge slag heap in West Mifflin, Pa.Photo: Nick and Drew Hagelin

To win the lunar XPrize, Astrobotic must incorporate this capability into a fully integrated lander—and get it off the ground well before the end of 2016. Astrobotic says its technology will be ready to go by the deadline. But much will depend on whether it can cobble together funding for the mission and reserve a rocket in time.

“The biggest challenge of this prize is the financing,” Thornton says. What’s more, he says, there is the possibility that SpaceX’s 2016 launch manifest will fill before Astrobotic is ready to claim a spot. But even if Astrobotic can’t get customers in line in time to make a bid for the lunar XPrize, he says, it will still aim for a launch: “We’re not driven by a particular date or prize. We’re out to make a sustainable business operation where we’re regularly transporting payload to the surface of the moon.”

Astrobotic isn’t the only team with a go-for-it-regardless stance. Another is the Penn State Lunar Lion team, based at Pennsylvania State University and still at the beginning stages of fund-raising and spacecraft construction. The extension will surely allow the Lunar Lion team to stay in the running for at least a bit longer, but making the deadline doesn’t concern team leader Michael Paul. The Google Lunar XPrize is “a great fire in the belly,” Paul says, but his main goal is to grow aerospace talent for the university. Already, he says, “there are companies that are coming here to recruit from the team.”

Competitor SpaceIL, an educational nonprofit in Israel, is also set on the moon, prize or no. “We’re 100 percent going to the moon,” declares director of business development Daniel Saat. Getting the prize would just be a bonus: “At the end of the day, the prize is dessert,” he says.

SpaceIL wants to give Israel its own Apollo moment. “Our mission is to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon,” Saat says. It’s a goal that’s resonated with many Israelis. SpaceIL has already raised $36 million—enough, Saat says, for them to get to the moon. The team has made outreach a priority and has so far reached some 60,000 schoolchildren through in-class presentations, he adds.

Now with more than 30 full-time staff, the group is just beginning work on flight hardware, which will be assembled in a facility managed by Israel Aerospace Industries. The team recently signed a contract for the construction of a $1 million onboard transceiver, which will be built by Space Micro, a San Diego–based hardware firm.

But SpaceIL is still struggling to find a ride. While Astrobotic plans to purchase an entire rocket for its mission, SpaceIL aims to go with the cheaper approach of piggybacking on an existing launch. Saat estimates that this should run about $10 million to $15 million.

animated gif showing landingFull Video: Masten's Xombie Flight Tests Astrobotic's Autonomous Landing System

Finding a shared berth has proved challenging. Piggybacking payloads is routine nowadays, but rocket companies and their customers are generally squeamish about a cargo that’s carrying a load of extra propellant, because it might endanger the primary payload. As Saat puts it: “For us to come with a spacecraft that’s 80 percent rocket fuel and stick it to the side? They’re not always as excited as we are about that.”

“There’s no commercial market today for sending secondary payloads to deep space—or primary payloads, for that matter,” says Andrew Barton, director of technical operations for the Google Lunar XPrize. “This is definitely charting new waters for the industry.” And that’s a good thing: “That’s one of the intents of the prize,” he notes.

Team Phoenicia, a former competitor based in California, has jumped in to see what it can do to help the launch market. After dropping its prize bid in 2013, the team reinvented itself as a launch broker and is now gathering customers together for a ride to space on an as-yet-unannounced rocket. The Lunar Lion team has reserved one of about 20 slots available for larger spacecraft, Team Phoenicia CEO William Baird says.

Incentive prizes have been used before to spur activity in aerospace, and extensions are nothing new. Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize with the first nonstop New York–Paris flight in 1927, after the prize went unclaimed and the competition was extended by five years.

Still, extensions can be counterproductive, notes Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and space historian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. When we interviewed him before this latest lunar prize extension, he said that another deadline change could make it hard to take future incentive-prize deadlines seriously. Better, he says, to divert the unclaimed prize money to a new competition.

As 2015 progresses, we’ll see how far teams move along. But we’ll have to wait a while more before it’s clear whether any teams will make the revised deadline.

Regardless of what’s to come, McDowell says the competition has already done a lot to stimulate new activity and excitement about space. “I think it was always a pretty long shot,” he says, “[but] I don’t think it will have been a waste.”

Fast Forward

Dips Into Deep Space

Private firms will make their first excursions beyond Earth orbit

Private Deep SpaceIllustration: MCKIBILLO

By 2020: The moon won’t be forgotten. At the very least, China plans to send a sample return mission to the lunar surface in 2017, following on its successful robotic landing in 2013.

As for private exploration, even if a lunar landing remains elusive, the next five years could bring at least a few forays beyond geosynchronous orbit. The spacecraft making these trips will likely be small. They could be standardized vehicles such as CubeSats, which consist of cube-shaped modules that measure 10 centimeters on a side. Hundreds of CubeSats have now been launched into space, but so far none past low Earth orbit.

That situation could change in just a few years, with the launch of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. The rocket, which is planned to eventually be the most powerful yet constructed, is designed to carry astronauts to asteroids and potentially to Mars. But on its maiden voyage in 2018, it will take a relative baby step, carrying an uncrewed space capsule on a three-week test flight beyond the moon.

NASA has set aside 11 berths for CubeSat missions that would piggyback on the launch. One mission that’s already been selected, called Lunar Flashlight, would hunt for evidence of water ice at the moon’s south pole. Two other missions aim to test the effect of space radiation on cell growth and to inspect a near-Earth asteroid. The agency has opened a competition for three to six other slots.

By 2025: By this time, several nonprofit and commercial outfits will be sending their own small spacecraft into deep space. This exploratory push will likely get a boost from newly miniaturized propulsion systems, such as the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster, a small plasma thruster developed at the University of Michigan.

Ten years from now, says space historian Jonathan McDowell, “we could see the first [private] interplanetary survey probes sent to asteroids,” a first step in exploring the profitability of asteroid mining. This may ultimately pave a path for the financially sustainable exploration of space beyond Earth orbit. —R.C.

A version of this article originally appeared in print as “The XPrize’s Lunar Deadline Drifts.”

Make Your Own Tech Predictions

How clear is your crystal ball? IEEE Spectrum has teamed up with the SciCast project, based at George Mason University, to bring its “Bayesian combinatorial prediction market” to Spectrum readers with one thing in mind: predict the future of technology. To that end, we’ve selected articles from the January Top Tech 2015 issue to give you the opportunity to match wits with the experts by making your own tech forecasts at IEEE SciCast. Registration is free, but required to set up a trading account. Select “IEEE Spectrum” under “Topics” in the registration menu. Get a feel for the tech-specific SciCast queries with this sample:

Question 1120: Which of the teams competing as of December 2014 will succeed in claiming the Google Lunar XPrize Grand Prize?

Question 1121: When will a spacecraft land on the Moon and fulfill the requirements of the $20-million Google Lunar XPrize Grand Prize?

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