Whether or not man may have already successfully landed anything at all on the surface of the moon, let alone actual humans, five teams from around the globe (and by that I’m referring to earthlings rather than extra-terrestrials) are aiming to send their robots there in 2017 to discover more about our closest celestial body than we’ve ever learnt before. It’s practically on our doorstep, after all.
Thanks to that gargantuan and seemingly unstoppable internet force that is Google coughing up toward the $30,000,000 prize fund for successful entrants, the handful of teams that have made the cut by convincing judges of their ability to actually manufacture conceptual machines capable of cutting their mustard (and a whole host of lunar minerals) on the surface of the moon have been working toward a deadline of 2017 as they strive to overcome another gargantuan and almost unstoppable force: gravity.
Thankfully, for the teams, the prize money is being awarded incrementally, although I can’t imagine that playing with robots on the moon necessarily falls within the twenty-million dollar budget. Still, going slightly over budget on an individual basis is probably worth the bragging rights, right? As well as the knowledge that you’re developing technology for the advancement of the human race, of course. The mission objectives state that each team must successfully land their craft on the moon, move 500m either above, across or below its surface and send back high definition video footage. Straightforward sounding enough on earth, which is where the qualifying teams have demonstrated their droids up to this point to prove feasibility, but whether or not they’ll be capable of operating in temperatures ranging from -247 degrees Celsius at night to +100 degrees Celsius during the daytime is yet to be seen.
SpaceX, the somewhat infamous developers of modern reusable space hardware that can just about land autonomously without exploding, backed by Elon Musk of PayPal fame and fortune, have already signed an agreement for two of the five shortlisted teams; Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh (United States) and Hakuto, hailing from Japan to share a lift on one of their Falcon 9 rockets in order to get their respective rovers onto the lunar soil next year.
Hakuto, Japanese for ‘white rabbit’ after a folktale involving the shape of a rabbit being seen in the dark side of the moon, plan to land not one, but two rovers. One to drive up to the edge of a crater of their choice and the other, lighter counterpart to abseil down into said crater. I’m unable to confirm whether the cumulative distance will count toward the objectives, or whether they’re just making more work for themselves by travelling across only to still have 500 metres of downward lunar exploration to follow. Let’s not forget that they’ll be in a side-by-side race against Astrorobotic’s Uni rover to complete as many of the objectives as possible once their shared lander lands and the ramp goes down.
United States based team Moon Express have taken a completely different approach to lunar exploration by planning to land on the moon not once, but twice. Moon Express have created a ‘flying donut’ which is essentially a ring shaped fuel tank fitted with some boosters and the requisite camera equipment for their mission that’ll hitch a lift out of the Earth’s stratosphere with help from Rocket Lab and one of their Electron rockets (no sharing here, I bet these guys never got bullied back at school) before propelling itself the remainder of the 24,000 miles, performing the riskiest part of any team’s journey, the landing part, taking off again, strafing 500m and then landing again. Sending home postcards from the moon has never sounded so simple, has it? In a similar vein, Israeli team SpaceIL, who were the first to secure a spot in the contest, will launch their mission in conjunction with a SpaceX rocket according to a recently signed formal contract between the two companies but its solar powered journey to the moon will take approximately two months to complete. When it arrives, it’ll recharge its batteries before hopping, yes, hopping toward its 500m distance target.
However, there is one big issue for the teams and it’s the driving force behind Moon Express and SpaceIL’s plans to fly 500m rather than travel overland: dust. Moon dust (not the edible, popping variety) is incredibly fine and tends to clog absolutely everything it comes into contact with, not to mention obscure vision. So whilst flying above it will kick up a bit of dust, it’s at least unlikely to cause any mechanical issues. The risk of dust disabling the other teams’ rovers is exponentially higher.
German team Part Time Scientists (who now actually employ a fair few full time scientists as part of their team), and their more conventional wheeled rover are frankly my favourites to win Google’s Lunar X-Prize, purely because they all have unrelated day jobs and just fancied a crack at trying a bit of robotic space travel, don’t seem fazed by travelling on the surface, however, and have already secured three quarters of a million dollars from the judges who were impressed by their imaging equipment in particular. It’s an interesting mix of one camera lens that images through a colour sensor and a pair of black and white cameras mounted either side, because everybody knows that the best way to shoot high definition colour video on the moon is by using two cameras with black and white sensors then adding the colour from the centrally mounted lens and its associated colour sensor afterwards, don’t they? The other advantage is that they’ll also be able to shoot their footage in 3D and that’s one way to resurrect a dying fad involving wearing an awkward looking pair of glasses. Count me in.
India’s only team of the sixteen overall entrants who managed to reach the development stage, Indus, have proved quite elusive to research despite having already netted an impressive $1,000,000 in milestone prize awards from the judges for their work so far.
The Google Lunar X-Prize hasn’t avoided controversy, however, with complaints being raised about the inclusion of so-called Heritage Awards in and amongst the bonus prizes. Offering a $4,000,000 award for any team that successfully produces a Mooncast from any Apollo mission site in both high definition and a lower resolution near realtime video as well as a panoramic photo of the site in question and an image showing a substantial portion of the Apollo craft from the site, concerns have been raised over their historical, cultural and archaeological significance and the possibility of damaging them by straying too close.
We’ll have to wait until 2017 to find out who makes it first, or even if anyone makes it at all, but either way it looks as if the future of commercial space exploration is looking bright. Thanks, Google. That’s one, small hop for a lunar lander…