Teams competing for the Google Lunar XPrize have been given some significant leeway to develop their projects, with the final deadline now pushed back to 2016. According to the competition’s judges, there’s been significant progress towards completing the lofty goal, with US$6 million in funding to be awarded in January 2015.
The Lunar XPrize, for those not in the know, is a timed challenge for private teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon. While that in itself might sound like a big enough ask, the competition also requires entrants' creations to travel 500 m (1,640 ft) on, below or above the surface and transmit HD video from our celestial companion.
For any team that can achieve those steps, there’s a $20 million grand prize waiting for them. Projects only qualify if less than 10 percent of their funding comes from the government, and everything has to be achieved before the deadline. While the initial cutoff for completing the challenge was set at December 31, 2015, its creators have since reassessed the magnitude of the task.
"We know the mission we are asking teams to accomplish is extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of the financial considerations," said XPrize vice chairman and president, Robert K. Weiss.
The new deadline for completion is now Decemeber 31, 2016, giving teams an extra year to make it to the Moon and satisfy the terms of the competition.
In addition to the grand prize, a series of "Milestone Prizes" are also being awarded. These are smaller sums of cash earmarked for the projects that show the most promise, and are designed to give them the financial boost needed to keep the the development process on track.
Back in March, five entrants were selected to compete for said prizes, many of whom are taking different approaches to development, and targeting varying goals.
Earlier this month, the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) team took out the Mobility Milestone Prize for Andy (pictured above), a four-wheeled lunar rover designed to explore a giant moon pit and possibly the lunar caves that may open onto it. XPRIZE said that the CMU team is currently the first and only team to meet the Milestone mobility objectives. Additionally, CMU's partner, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology was named as the first winner of a Milestone Prize in the imaging subsystem category. Astrobotic Technology is a CMU spinoff, which is also developing the landing craft intended to deliver Andy to the Moon.
"Andy has proven to be a tough, smart, sure-footed machine," said William "Red" Whittaker, professor of robotics, who led a team of about 50 students, faculty and staff members from across the CMU campus to create the rover. "We’ve shaken it to simulate launch forces, driven it through moon dirt and exposed it to the extremes of lunar temperatures among many, many tests. Our team and our machine faced a rigorous evaluation by world-class judges and came out on top."
The Milestone Prize included a $500,000 cash award, which will be used to continue the rover's development. Looking forward, January is set to be a big month for the competition, with up to $6 million in additional Milestone Prize funding being awarded. Announcements will be made at a private event at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, on January 26.
Update (Dec. 23, 2014): Some of the details and images of Andy, the rover designed and built by a CMU team, were out of date in the story as it originally appeared, so we've updated the text and added new images to reflect the latest information.