This week in Santiago, Chile, 20 out of 23 Google Lunar X Prize Teams (GLXP) are meeting for an annual summit to better gauge which teams are moving forward with their mission.
The mission at hand? Nothing too difficult—just build a robot from scratch, send it to the Moon’s surface, have it travel 500 meters and transmit video, data, and images back to Earth. The concept is reminiscent of an unmanned Apollo mission; think of the Lunokhod program the USSR enterprised in the early 1970s, which sent the largest rover ever—even at present time—to the Moon. This kind of mission would not only be a boon to the lunar scientific community, but would also energize the private space industry about seriously getting back to the Moon and even perhaps creating future infrastructure there.
Some back history: in September 2007, Google and the X Prize Foundation teamed up to announce this project. At stake? Spaceflight history and a cool $30 million ($20 million for first prize and $5 for a second prize, with $5 million in additional prizes; the prize will decrease to $15 million if a government-funded space program does the job first—it’s rumored China will attempt to launch a Moon lander and rover, Chang’e 3, later this year). This competition would enable a privately-funded, non-government affiliated team to literally “shoot for the Moon,” so to speak, for the very first time.
So, who is serious, and who is all talk? As of writing this piece, the summit is still on, but several frontrunners have emerged who are making real headway in planning key mission objectives. Astrobiotic, a Pittsburgh-based company, announced it completed a prototype lunar lander as early as February 2011. In addition, the company also signed a contract with SpaceX to launch the lander to the Moon on a Falcon 9 rocket; the rocket is reserved for use in 2015 (the GLXP deadline). The rocket’s upper stage would, according to an Astrobiotic press release, “sling [the lander] on a four-day cruise to the Moon.” SpaceX has tallied up a string of high-profile successes with its latest series of cargo missions to the International Space Station during this last year, utilizing the Falcon 9.
Barcelona Moon Team, which hails from Spain, also is a serious contender. Galactic Suite, a company which leads the team, signed a launch service contract in 2012 to utilize a Chinese rocket’s services, which would carry their robot to the Moon. They plan on accomplishing this feat as early as 2014, which makes the odds for them to take the prize better.
SpaceMETA, from Brazil, is also in the planning and testing phase. They announced that they will start experimental stratospheric launches at high altitudes to test some of their navigation, stabilization, and imaging components, along with other systems. They seem to have the right spirit and are enthusiastic.
The deadline to see who fulfills the mission is 2015, which is truly right around the corner. While all of the current teams seem like they’re “all in,” this week’s summit will underscore this prize’s frontrunners and who has the “winning” spirit.