A rendering of the dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed to the moon. A rendering of the dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed to the moon. A rendering of the dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed to the moon. (Photo: SpaceIL)

3 teams set to make planetary history with moon landing

Google competition will, for the first time, see private groups lift off.

A new space race is stepping up a notch as a key Google Lunar XPRIZE deadline draws ever closer. Way back in September 2007, the nonprofit XPRIZE Foundation joined forces with Google to announce the launch of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a dangling carrot for the ambitious space tech-loving innovators of this world. The goal of the competition? To go where no privately funded robot has gone before: the moon. Almost a decade later, as we approach 2017, this lunar competition is really heating up.

As a key competition deadline looms in December, Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL remains a frontrunner in the competition and will be sending a dishwasher-sized spaceship to the moon next year. They were the first team to secure a launch spot, signing a deal with Space X to hitch a ride on one of their upcoming rockets.

The idea behind the Google Lunar XPRIZE was to reignite interest in space exploration and stimulate growth in spaceflight innovation by spurring on teams to create low-cost robotic methods.

The competition attracted 16 teams from all over the globe, from Japan to Brazil to Malaysia. As of October 2016, only three teams – SpaceIL, Moon Express and Synergy Moon – have secured launch contracts. The rest of the entrants have until the end of 2016 to follow in their footsteps and announce a verified launch contract.

The first team to land a mooncraft on the moon’s surface, have it successfully travel for at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and transmit high-definition images and videos back to Earth, will be awarded a grand prize of $20 million. An additional $5 million is set aside for second place team, with another $5 million for special bonus accomplishments, bringing the total prize pool up to $30 million.

Though the prize money has certainly inspired the teams to action, it is not the only lure for the competitors. In fact, most teams will spend far in excess of the prize payout simply preparing for liftoff. For this very reason, many of the teams still in the running have been prompted to come up with sustainable business models rather than just aiming for a one-off lunar landing at any cost. With the clock ticking down and many of the remaining teams scrambling to close launch contracts, we thought it was high time to look at the individual goals driving the three leading contenders.

While all three front-running teams are striving to meet the prize conditions set out by the Google Lunar XPRIZE, they have set out distinct goals for their lunar missions. Take Moon Express, for instance, a U.S.-based team and one of the three competitors to have secured a coveted launch contract. Moon Express is currently the only private sector institution to have gotten clearance from the U.S. government for extraterrestrial explorations.

“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” said co-founder and CEO, Bob Richards.

But what exactly do they intend to do there? For Moon Express, the initial mission is a kind of reconnaissance trip to help them assess and ultimately utilize lunar resources. “Space travel is our only path forward to ensure our survival and create a limitless future for our children,” said co-founder and chairman, Naveen Jain. “In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals, and moon rocks back to Earth.”

SpaceIL, a not-for-profit Israeli organization and another of the trio of launch-secured teams, has a different approach. For them, promoting science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) is at the core of their mission. Their hope is that their work might spark another “Apollo Effect” just like the 1969 moon landings. They want to make space exploration seem not only more real but also more achievable to younger Israelis, and perhaps even inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers in a country known for its startup culture. “It’s about building ourselves a better future. Projects like the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition and SpaceIL are needed to push humanity forward,” says Yariv Bash of SpaceIL.

The third of the three Google Lunar XPRIZE teams set to lift off in 2017, the international Synergy Moon team, takes yet another tack. They describe their organization as a “merge of the arts and sciences” and says that Synergy Moon strives to “make manned orbital travel, personal satellite launches, and solar system colonization cost-effective, and above all, possible for everyone” and “to inspire and invigorate humanity's desire to explore the moon, Mars, and space beyond.” The latest of the teams to announce an officially verified launch contract, Synergy Moon is planning their launch for the second half of 2017.

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