*This post was written before the GLXP released new information about the prize deadline on 16th August 2017 – and is based on the idea that the teams must launch before the end of 2017*
In 2010 I found myself on the Isle of Man, reporting on the Google Lunar XPRIZE team summit that was taking place there. It was one of the first space-themed things that I’d ever been involved with, and as such, I was super excited to hear about a competition where a host of internationally-based teams were racing to send rovers to the Moon.
“Robots on the Moon” I thought, “wow. That. Is. Cool”
Here we are in 2017, the 36 original teams have been whittled down to just five, and the deadline for reaching the Moon, despite having been previously extended twice, is now looming large. To win, teams have to land on the Moon, drive 500 m and send back HD video – by the end of 2017. There are just five months left.
Now in the interests of transparency, I should mention I’m now working with PTScientists, (previously known as the Part-Time Scientists) who were one of original 36 Google lunar XPRIZE teams. They are no longer competing as their launch is scheduled for post-2017, and thus don’t meet the deadline for the GLXP. This post is solely based on publicly available information (as linked in the piece), and I only speak for myself, not my employer. Okay – official-ese done, let’s get down to business…
Space is hard, we know that, and managing a soft-landing on another celestial body adds an additional layer of complexity. That’s before you consider that rovers need to be deployed safely, drive 500 m and send high-quality video back to Earth.
Getting over the first hurdle – launch – is one of the hardest to achieve, and that’s what I’m going to focus on here – since without it, the rest is immaterial. So let’s take a look at the runners and riders, and see whether we’ll see a private mission on the Moon by the end of this year.
Let’s start with SpaceIL – the Israeli team – since it seems they are now aiming for a 2018 launch, which automatically rules them out. What happened to the launch contract that got them through to the final five? Well, (as one article suggests) they may have sold their launch slot on a SpaceX Falcon9 or (as another article suggests) are suffering from SpaceX launch slippages, and now targeting a 2018 launch. In either of these scenarios, they will not meet the requirements on the Google Lunar XPRIZE. So that leaves us with four.
MY VERDICT: Out of the running
The only team that does have a scheduled launch date is Team Indus, surely making them the favourite at this point. (Other strong teams Astrobotic and PTScientists opted for post-2017 launches and have thus left the competition already.)
We know that India’s national space programme has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and there can be no shortage of smart engineers to form a team there. Add to that they are launching on a proven launch vehicle (the PSLV) and have a scheduled date for launch and things are looking good. That said, a launch date of 28th December 2017 leaves very little room for delays or problems of any kind, since the deadline for launch (thought thankfully for them not landing) is the end of this year. Any launch slip could put them perilously close to disqualification (how cruel if a launch were to be pushed back to 1st January 2018?!).
Another issue is that launches are expensive, and there are some signs that they are struggling to raise the cash required to guarantee their space on the rocket. Then there is this article which suggests that they don’t hold the necessary paperwork required, thus putting the whole mission at risk for other reasons.
MY VERDICT: IF red-tape and finances are in order, they’ll get my vote. But it’s a BIG “if”.
Next up is Moon Express. I regularly hear this team touted as a favourite to win the prize, and I certainly think they are good at pushing their image in the space press, but let’s look a little bit closer at their chances.
Moon Express has a launch contract with New Zealand start-up (with US company listing) Rocket Lab USA, about whom very little information was available until they conducted a recent test launch of their Electron Rocket. Interested to find out a bit more about their chances of getting to the testing phase I looked into whether New Zealand had granted them a licence to launch, and discovered that the framework for them even to apply for such a thing had to be quickly rushed through parliament! New Zealand has not been considering a space-faring nation up until then, so it’s interesting to see things evolve for them.
Anyway, back to Rocket Lab. They conducted a test launch – #itsatest – on 25th May 2017. For all the positive press that this received, one major element seems to have been overlooked: it didn’t make orbit. Now, for a first test of a rocket, that’s not the end of the world – but for Moon Express, who are relying on this vehicle to help them on their journey to the Moon, it’s a Big Deal.
Rocket Lab stated that they were going to run three test launches before taking commercial payloads, unless the earlier launches went particularly well, and they might then consider taking commercial payload on a later test launch. We’re two months since their first launch and they are still crunching the data. It didn’t go brilliantly, so the likelihood that they will take payload on the next test launch is low, and, not to put too fine a point on it, time is running out.
Another side thought is this: I’ve seen pictures of the mock-up of the MX-1E lander and it seems pretty small. I’m not a rocket scientist (sadly), but it sort of feels like maybe they would need more fuel to get to the Moon from Earth orbit, no? Unless they have another launch vehicle lined up, I wouldn’t put my money on Moon Express getting to the Moon this year – no matter how good their media game is.
MY VERDICT: Good patter, but over-optimistic. Without a different launch vehicle, I’m going to take a punt and say it ain’t happening this year.
Who are we left with then? There’s Team Synergy Moon, but again, they are relying on a new rocket – and it’s being built by one of their founding partners, Interorbital Systems. According to Synergy Moon, they will launch on a Neptune-8 rocket, so I went to find out a bit more about it. So far, it doesn’t appear to exist, but Interorbital Systems describe the Neptune rocket family as being “assembled from multiple Common Propulsion Modules (CPMs)”. So a bit like Lego bricks then? Just stick a few more modules together for a bigger rocket? Hmmmm.
This is where it starts to get a bit confusing. There is different (and at times contradictory) information online, and even the company website can’t seem to make up its mind! Depending on the section you read, Synergy Moon is either launching on an N8 LUNA rocket, comprised of 8 long CPMs, or an N36 (which, if you follow their naming convention of the small Neptune rockets, would involve 36 propulsion modules!). I found an amazing image, (credited to Interorbital Systems, but apparently no longer on their site) which shows what the N36 might look like. Forgive me for feeling less than confident about this modular approach.
Their latest press release (from 25th July 2017) announces that their N1-GTV is almost ready for a low-altitude flight test. Once this is complete they will attempt to build an orbital version. Given the N1 forms the basis of their larger rockets, they are a long way from getting to the Moon. Oh – and I didn’t mention their plan to launch from “a private island launch site or from the open ocean” did I?
I’m afraid this is rocket science, and there is a reason that that clichéd phrase is often used – it is hard. Once again there is no news of a launch date as far as I can tell, so again, I’m putting their chances at small to miracle.
MY VERDICT: I admire the innovation, but I think they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
That means it’s all down to Japan’s Team Hakuto then, which is a bit of an issue really, since not only do they not have their own landing vehicle (which frankly doesn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of the original competition), but without Team Indus, they won’t have a launch either. Oh.
MY VERDICT: Hitchhiking to the Moon isn’t easy… even if they make it I’d credit Team Indus with the win.
Is anyone capable of winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE this year?
I’d say – no. In fact, I think I’d put money on it. That’s not to say it is impossible, but at this point it is so improbable that I’m frankly surprised that Moon Express are still publicly pushing a message that they think they can win.
I actually got in touch with the GLXP press contact (as listed on their site) recently to find out whether I’d missed any press releases. The most recent one about the status of the GLXP, which they kindly pointed me to, was that from January, when they announced the five teams through to the final stage. The fact that there didn’t seem to be any launch scheduling updates – with so little time left in the competition – should ring alarm bells, even if nothing else I’ve written, has.
Is the GLXP a failure?
While it is of course disappointing that it is nigh on impossible for any team to meet the requirements of the challenge as it currently stands, the very fact that there were so many teams that came together to give it a shot is a brilliant thing. (And of course, if any of the remaining teams were to prove me wrong, I’d be the first to celebrate their success!)
At least three of the original teams have developed serious business plans that expand on the basic GLXP requirements (to land, drive 500 m and send back HD video). Moon Express recently announced a range of vehicles that they hope to use to expand their Moon business, PTScientists will conduct a range of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface – as well as returning to the site of Apollo 17 to investigate the structure of the original Lunar Roving Vehicle after 45 years on the Moon, and Astrobotic have a partnership with DHL to allow you to send a keepsake to the Moon using a DHL MoonBox. All three companies are banking on a demand for payload delivery services to the Moon (– and beyond?).
Without the GLXP I doubt there would have been the impetus for these companies to be founded and to invest in developing new technology. Despite all the talk about Mars in the past few years, I have noticed a serious and growing interest in the Moon. This year will see China’s Chang’e 5 sample return mission launch to the Moon, ESA Director General Jan Woerner is pushing his “Moon Village” agenda, and at the recent Global Space Exploration Conference there was a real buzz around discussions involving the Moon.
I think that this is a trend that is set to continue, and Google Lunar XPRIZE-inspired teams have a great opportunity to lead the charge in the private sector – becoming valuable and accessible partners for space agencies, nations and industry.
Whether or not any team manages to fulfil the GLXP challenge before the deadline (which I greatly doubt), there is no question in my mind that the Google lunar XPRIZE has been a force for good.
I will be watching the remaining teams – and those companies that opted for later launch dates – with interest. Cheers Google, and cheers XPRIZE. Here’s to the Moon! Ad astra et ad luna!
UPDATE: It appears that XPRIZE may have come to the same conclusion about the 2017 deadline. Their latest press release gives teams until 31st March 2018 to complete their missions, while elsewhere on the site it states that the teams’ verified launch dates are in 2018. Interesting…