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The Unsettling End to Google’s Lunar X-prize 

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The Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP), also referred to as Moon 2.0, was an inducement prize space competition organized by the X Prize Foundation. The basic objective of launching this prize was to challenge and inspire engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. The competition sponsored by Google kicked-off in 2007 and has been abruptly called off in 2018 due to some technical, regulatory and financial issues during the course of the programme. The challenge called for privately-funded teams to be the first to successfully place a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, to travel 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth.

Backdrop of the Moon 2.0

The Google Lunar XPRIZE was designed along the lines of Ansari XPRIZE. Dr. Peter Diamandis, the CEO of BlastOff Corporation had envisioned a commercial venture to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon. An eclectic mix of entertainment, internet, and space was presumed to be the basic feature of this initiative. Though the plan could not materialize, it laid the foundation for new avenues in the field of space research ultimately paving the way for the Google Lunar X Prize.

Initially, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was on board as the official sponsor and the prize limit was fixed to US$20 million. NASA is an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government and is funded by the U.S. government. Thus, NASA had to soon step-off from the sponsorship due to certain financial constraints. During an XPRIZE fundraiser, Peter Diamandis then presented the idea to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google. With Google aboard, the prize limit was increased to US$30 million. Cash prize for second place and certain bonus prizes in different categories were also included in the programme.

Competition Overview

The Google Lunar XPRIZE was launched at the Wired Nextfest on 13 September 2007. A whopping amount of US$30 million was bequeathed for the prize distribution in this competition. The first team to land a robot on the Moon that successfully travels more than 500 meters (1,640 ft) and transmits back high-definition images and video would be entitled to the US$20 million grand prize. The second team to accomplish the same feat would be eligible to earn a US$5 million second prize. Besides the core prizes, there were additional cash prizes for completing tasks that were beyond the regular specified mission, such as travelling ten times the baseline requirements, capturing images of the remains of Apollo program hardware or any other man-made objects on the Moon, verifying the recent detection of water ice on the Moon from the lunar surface, or surviving a lunar night. A US$1 million diversity award also featured in the list for significant impact in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). As stated by Peter Diamandis, X Prize founder and chairman; the Google Lunar XPRIZE is set to expire on March 31st and no team will be eligible to claim the prize owing to non-adherence to the set deadline.

Final Teams

Initially, 32 teams registered for the competition. On 24 January 2017, XPRIZE announced the 5 finalist teams- SpaceIL, Moon Express, Synergy Moon, Team Indus and Hakuto after they had secured verified launch contracts for 2017 with SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Interorbital Systems and ISRO respectively.

Deadline Extensions

The prize was originally announced in 2007 with a $20 million prize to the winner if the mission was achieved by 2012; the prize decreased to $15M until the end of 2014. In 2010, the deadline was extended by one year, with the prize to expire at the end of December 2015. On 16 December 2014, XPRIZE announced another extension in the prize deadline from 31 December 2015 to 31 December 2016. In May 2015, the foundation announced another extension of the deadline. The deadline for winning the prize was now December 2017. On 16 August 2017, the deadline was extended again to 31 March 2018. As per the final reports, the competition will formally end on 31 March 2018 with no team emerging as the winner.

Way Ahead for the XPRIZE Finalists

Post the expiration of the prize in March 2018, the finalists aim to continue with their efforts to send a spacecraft to the Moon. The expiration of the prize deadline came as a disappointment for those teams who believed they had a chance to hit the jackpot with a minor extension in the deadline. However, shrugging off the unlikely turn of events, Moon Express will continue with the development of its MX series of lunar landers but with relaxed schedules given, there’s no pressure to meet deadlines anymore. Given the immense possibilities in the field of space research, Team Indus plans to continue with the development of its lunar lander and rover despite the end of the competition.

As an aerospace start-up, the team aims to become an integral part of the industry with the target to launch multiple spacecraft on the Moon. Team Hakuto of Japan plans to pursue it’s lunar missions independent of the Google Lunar XPRIZE and has raised $90 million for the cause. SpaceIL, the Israel-based team in the competition, in efforts to continue with the space exploration announced a fundraising to raise $30 million to complete the work on the spacecraft. Synergy Moon, an international team and the last finalist in the competition, is working on the development of its lander, which is scheduled to fly on an Interorbital Systems’ Neptune rocket.

Update From the Google Lunar XPRIZE

Though the competition ends on a note of indecision, it contributed substantially to have sparked the conversation in the field of lunar exploration. Space exploration is now an excellent example of diligent and disciplined team-work. The mission can be achieved with the involvement of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world and is no longer the sole dominion of a few government agencies. As elucidated by Peter Diamandis and Marcus Shingles, over the course of the competition, certain exemplary milestones have been achieved:

More than $300 million has been raised through corporate sponsorships, government contracts and venture capital for the promotion of space research. A number of jobs have been created and the first commercial space companies were established in India, Malaysia, Israel, and Hungary. Most significantly, the mission has been successful in engaging the interest of the youth across the globe towards recent advancements in space exploration and STEM fields. In a first, one team received the first-ever “Mission Approval” from the U.S. government to send a private spacecraft to complete their first lunar mission. The participating teams received global media exposure through their stint with the leading media partners in a bid to share the story of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, inspiring millions of people around the world.

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