Locations of the GLXP’s 29 teams. Dark green shows where teams are headquartered, and light green shows countries where team members are from.
When a couple dozen companies sign contracts containing the words “moon” and “landing,” it’s a good indication that private lunar exploration is heating up.
The X Prize Foundation on Thursday announced that 29 teams had signed contracts making them the official Google Lunar X Prize competitors, contending for more than $30 million in prizes. The competitors, headquartered in 17 different countries, have been crafting promising business plans and rolling out prototypes. One team, Astrobotic Technology, has even arranged its rocket ride to the moon already.
“We could be intimidated by that development, but it’s good for everyone who’s serious about going to the moon,” said Michael Joyce, president of team Next Giant Leap. “It shows this industry has moved beyond being an idea, that it is really going to happen.”
To claim the first-place prize of $20 million before 2015 (it drops to $5 million after that), a team must land a robot on the moon, move it at least 500 meters and beam back high-definition imagery. Additional $2 million bonuses are available for robots that can survive one bitterly cold two-week lunar night or travel 5 kilometers, among other challenges.
Google and the X Prize Foundation jointly announced the competition in September 2007, but the duo has worked with dozens of teams for years to finalize fair rules that foster progress instead of stunts.
“We want to encourage a financially sustainable era of lunar exploration. The Apollo program and Soviet programs were fantastically inspiring, but they stopped just as they really started to scratch the surface,” said planetary scientist William Pomerantz, a senior director at the X Prize Foundation. “Flags and footprints aren’t sustainable. We want the teams to trigger business much larger in value than our prize.”
ost of that value may rest in raw, untapped resources. Recent moon-surveying missions have revealed methane, ammonia andwater — useful ingredients for moon bases and rockets — arehiding on the surface. A rare isotope of helium may also be abundant, and it could fuel pollution-free (although still-theoretical) fusion reactors.
Lunar science could also get a boost from more frequent visits, as multibillion-dollar moon missions launched every decade or so by the government are too infrequent and too risky to encourage much growth in the field.
“Doctoral students who want to do lunar science shouldn’t have to gamble their Ph.D.s on one launch,” Pomerantz said. “If lunar shots can go every six months or so, we’ll see a much higher volume of scientific results as well as scientists.”
To find out who is leading the race to seed such developments, technology security consultant Michael Doornbos has spent years interviewing the competitors and tracking their progress. The result of his work is a scorecard that ranks teams based on criteria such as funding, industry connections and progress.
“No one had any way to tell where we were at in the competition, making it almost impossible to be a fan or, especially, a super fan like me. So I decided to make a visual representation,” Doornbos said. “I’m not a space industry expert, but I do talk to them to keep it updated. And a lot of people tell me they see great value in it because I’m an outsider.”
David Gump, president of Astrobotic, said the scorecard is helpful, but that it may be impossible to know who is actually out in front.
“Many teams are playing their hands very close to the vest,” Gump told Wired.com. “They’re not saying much.”
Whoever is leading the competition, there’s a slim chance it may not matter. Organizers of the prize aren’t happy about the prospect — they may lose rights to video and images from the first privatized lunar landing — but they may get their wish of a burgeoning moon-based industry without awarding a dollar.
Over the years, teams have made business plans with revenues projected to exceed the prize’s one-team maximum of $24 million after just one successful launch. And as the start-up lunar businesses work multimillion-dollar deals with third parties, concerns about GLXP’s contractual language have cropped up.
One clause that ruffled teams’ feathers states that GLXP will get intellectual property rights related to multimedia. Pomerantz explained it’s there to allow his organization to document and share the story of the competition with the world for free.
“We’re an educational non-profit organization. We’re here to inspire the next generation, and it’s why we’re supported by our donors and sponsors,” Pomerantz said. “On the same token, we’re not here to interfere with anyone’s ability to do business. We want to be the initial push that gets the teams over that first bump.”
Still, some teams are working big deals with cable TV providers to license content to their networks.
“They have 3-D channels on their systems, and they need something to fill them,” Gump said. “A documentary about a 3-D-seeing lunar robot would work quite well.”
Given the prestige — and cash — to be bestowed upon the winner, Pomerantz said it’s an unlikely hypothetical that anyone will withdraw, especially because such wrinkles have been ironed out, he said. If a team wants to withdraw from the competition, however, it can rip up the GLXP contract as late as 6 months before a moonshot.
Still, propulsion engineer Tim Pickens, who leads the Rocket City Space Pioneers team, says the prize isn’t the greatest of his concerns.
“If you need the prize to make your team’s business work, you’re hosed,” said Pickens, who helped build SpaceShipOne and win the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004 — a win that spawned Virgin Galactic and a nearly $1 billion private industry in suborbital flights.
“The prize money is an awesome consolation and a great way to recoup development costs, but it isn’t going to cover your mission costs,” Pickens said. “There are much, much less risky ways to make money. For the value of the prize versus the risk, you might as well be doing something else.”