Google Lunar X Prize Teams Taking Shape
An illustration of a rover from team Independence–X Aerospace from Malaysia, which officially joined the race for the Google Lunar X Prize on October 7, 2008.
Credit: Independence–X Aerospace

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Nearly two years into the competition for the Google Lunar X Prize $30 million purse, teams are lining up financing, establishing partnerships and tinkering with rover prototypes.

The international competition announced in September 2007 to land a rover on the moon, travel 500 meters and send back high-definition imagery has attracted 19 teams with participants from 42 countries, Nicole Jordan, X Prize Foundation team liaison, said during a Space Frontier Foundation conference here in late July. Teams range from an open-source collaboration of engineers and software developers to highly structured partnerships featuring prominent aerospace firms, universities and investment banks.

In spite of their contrasting approaches, team leaders speaking July 20 during a panel discussion on the prize were uniformly optimistic that lunar transportation services would be profitable. Participants cited a study released July 16 by the Futron Corp. predicting a $1 billion to $1.5 billion market for commercial lunar services during the next decade. The study by Futron, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., identified six markets for lunar services: hardware sales to governments around the world, services for government customers, products for the commercial sector, entertainment, sponsorship, technology sales and licensing.

Before they can reap the rewards of those markets, however, teams will have to make a significant investment to reach the Moon. Bob Richards, chief executive for Odyssey Moon Ltd., a company formed on the Isle of Man one year before the lunar prize was announced, said an extremely efficient mission to send 30 kilograms to 50 kilograms to the Moon would cost approximately $100 million.

Richards said the Futron study confirms his view that customers will line up to send payloads to the Moon once a reliable service is in place. "Our goal is to prove that the private sector together with government can provide transportation services to the Moon and establish an economic base and a viable business case to continue operations," Richards said.

Odyssey Moon announced July 29 that it had signed up its fifth customer, the International Space School Education Trust. Moonlink Ltd. of Yorkshire, England, has contracted with the Education Trust to reserve 1 kilogram on Odyssey Moon's first flight, dubbed MoonOne, for a scientific instrument to be selected by a competition for Yorkshire schools and individuals. Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., also announced plans to send an experiment on MoonOne to grow mustard seeds, and Celestis, a part of Space Services Inc. of Houston, hired Odyssey Moon to carry a memorial capsule with cremated remains to the Moon or into lunar orbit. In addition, the International Lunar Observatory Association, based in Hawaii, plans to send aloft a scientific instrument to collect astrophysical and in-situ information, and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research plans to launch a modified version of a spectrometer designed originally for the European Space Agency's Aurora Mars exploration program.

In addition to building a customer base, Odyssey Moon is seeking investors to finance its flights. During the next six months, Richards said Odyssey Moon will embark on a second round of financing with a group of new partners: Near Earth LLC, an investment bank based in New York; WPP Group, a London-based marketing and communications firm; Milbank Tweed Hadley and McCloy LLP, a law firm based in New York; and Aon International Space Brokers, an insurance company from Chicago.

The economic downturn is making it challenging to raise money, "but it is not so daunting that it has discouraged us," Richards said. "If you have a good business plan, the economic climate doesn't matter."

Michael Joyce, founder of another Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Next Giant Leap, said the economic slowdown may even benefit his team because investors have little prospect of making money in the short term. "It has shown investors that they need to be looking at a little bit longer time horizon, so that has helped us," Joyce said.

The Next Giant Leap team, which was known simply as the Mystery Team during the first year of the competition, includes Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Littleton, Colo., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Space Systems Laboratory and the Draper Laboratory, both of Cambridge, Mass., and Aurora Flight Sciences of Manassas, Va. The team's Moon lander design is based on existing spacecraft built by Sierra Nevada, while Draper Labs is offering guidance, navigation and control expertise.

The MIT students, led by former astronaut Jeff Hoffman, unveiled a prototype robot in June designed to hop across the Moon's surface. The students are scheduled to complete testing of the prototype within one year, Joyce said on July 20.

While Next Giant Leap is seeking investors, the team is also financed in part by an unusual method. Joyce, the owner of B9 Creations LLC of Deadwood, S.D., manufactures and sells $24,500 replicas of the robot featured in the 1965 television series "Lost in Space."

Another Google Lunar X Prize team, Astrobotic Technology led by Chairman William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, already has built three prototype rovers designed not only to win the initial $20 million prize, but to win millions of dollars in bonus prizes with its first mission scheduled for May 2011. During that mission, called Tranquility Trek, the Astrobotic robot is designed to travel to the Apollo 11 site and send back imagery showing the impact of weather, radiation and meteorite bombardment on hardware left there.

According to the lunar prize rules, the first team to land on the Moon, travel 500 meters and send back a 1 gigabyte "Mooncast" including high-definition still and video images by Dec. 31, 2012, will win $20 million. If that goal is not accomplished, a prize of $15 million will be available until Dec. 31, 2014. No prize will be awarded after that unless the rules are changed by sponsors Google Inc. and the X Prize Foundation of Playa Vista, Calif. The second team to reach the Moon by Dec. 31, 2014, will win $5 million. Teams that complete additional tasks, such as traveling 5,000 meters on the lunar surface, sending back imagery of Apollo hardware, discovering water and surviving the cold lunar night, will be eligible for $5 million in additional prizes.

The Astrobotics team includes the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz., to design and build the rover's cameras, and Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., to help design the spacecraft.

Two additional X prize competitors, Fred Bourgeois, leader of Fred's Research Development and Exploration Network (Frednet), and Kevin Myrick, leader of Team Synergy Moon, also presented plans for Moon missions during the panel discussion.

Team Synergy Moon, which joined the competition in February, is a collaboration of space enthusiasts, filmmakers, artists and adventurers from around the world. The team's goal is to interest young people in space exploration, Myrick said. To raise money for the Lunar X Prize competition, Team Synergy Moon plans to hold art festivals, concerts and public technology demonstrations around the world.

In contrast, Frednet is focused on creating an open source lunar mission. "We want to prove that a group of open source developers can come together, work together and solve problems," Bourgeois said. "I'm trying to draw in as many people as I can find with math, science and engineering backgrounds in an open source, open participation project."

Members of Team Frednet are developing multiple rovers including a 72.5 gram ball based on a Lego Mindstorm model kit and a 4 kilogram rover. In addition to competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, Team Frednet members are interested in sending small satellites into low Earth orbit and establishing a digital communications network to serve future Moon missions, Bourgeois said.