It is almost like the hit reality television series The Amazing Race is taking place in the scientific community as teams from around the world race to send a probe into space, land it on the moon and win the Google Lunar X Prize. As it currently stands, two teams from the U.S. with the names “Astrobotic” and “Moon Express” as well as one team from Japan called “Hakuto” are competing. Additionally, there is also one team from India who have chosen to go by “Team Indus” and one team from Germany that has the name “Part-Time-Scientists” are all among the top five competitors. These teams have each qualified to earn Milestone Prizes within three categories.
The first award in question is called the Landing System Milestone Prize. This prize is worth $1 million U.S. per team and it is awarded based on team’s abilities to develop the software and hardware that will enable a lunar landing. Teams Moon Express, Astrobotic and Team Indus are all competing to win this particular award.
The second thing that is being competed for is named the Mobility Subsystem Milestone Prize and is worth $500,000 U.S. for each winner. This prize tests the mobility systems of each of the lunar probes. Essentially, the probe must be designed to travel 500 meters after it lands and it can do that either on, above or below the moon’s surface. Teams Moon Express, Astrobotic, Part-Time-Scientists and Hakuto are all attempting to win this prize.
Finally, the last prize Google Lunar X teams are competing for like they were running The Amazing Race in space is the Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize. This final prize is worth $250,000 U.S. and the criteria is to produce “Mooncasts,” which are essentially images and videos produced in high-quality, taken on the moon’s surface and returned to Earth. Moon Express, Astrobotic, Team Indus and Part-Time-Scientists, together are heated in competition for this award.
There is a grand total of $6 million in prizes to be awarded in Google Lunar X Prize amounts. Each one of the teams that have been selected from the original 18 applicants have already submitted documentation to the judging panel that outlined the risks associated with their venture and what they plan to do about them. To actually win the milestone Google Lunar X Prize handouts, the teams will each have a September 2014 deadline, to actually complete the requirements and impress the judges.
According to Google Lunar X Prize senior director Alexandra Hall, these categories were chosen because “They came directly from the things you need to do to win the Google Lunar X Prize.” The top prize amount for the full competition has been a purse of $30 million U.S. and the milestone prizes come out of that amount if the teams who win go on to the final competition. Google has now increased the full reward to a larger sum of $40 million U.S. to encourage teams who do end up winning milestone prizes, to go on and finish competing until the very end.
Not everyone is optimistic about the Google Lunar X Prize however. Jonathan McDowell, space historian and astronomer from Harvord-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics claims that this is one of the least promising things he has ever seen come out of the private space industry. In fact, in the two-year time-frame, (the probes are meant to land on the moon’s surface by December 31, 2015) McDowell just does not see it happening from any of these teams.
Will the teams who go on to compete for the full Google Lunar X Prize successfully send their probe into space and land it on the surface of the moon like a scientific version of The Amazing Race? Time will tell and by the time the September 2014 prizes are awarded, everyone will have a much better idea.
By Jonathan Holowka