Back in December, we learned that the final deadline for the prestigious Lunar XPrize had been pushed back to 2016, giving the teams a little more time to perfect their creations. We also heard that up to US$6 million in funding would be awarded to the most promising teams. The results are now in and the front runners are beginning to emerge.
First, a quick recap. The Lunar XPrize is a competition being run in partnership with Google that promises a grand prize of $30 million for any team that can successfully land a custom built robot on the Moon, and have it travel at least 500 m (1,640 ft) before transmitting HD footage back home.
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Three key areas
To help the teams achieve those lofty goals, several prize purses were available to teams whose creations showed promise in certain areas. Actual testing and analysis was required for the awarding of the Milestone Prize funds, $5.25 million of which has now been awarded, spread over three categories.
The Landing Milestone is the first of these and concerns both the software and hardware required to make a controlled landing on the Moon. A wide range of systems and apparatus were monitored by judges, including attitude controls, Guidance Navigation and Control (GNC) systems, propulsion, avionics, landing legs (or other landing apparatus) and thermal controls. Team Indus (India), Moon Express (US) and Astrobotic (US) each received $1 million prizes for the category – the largest sums available at this stage of the competition.
The second category focused on mobility, judging the teams' progress towards the goal of getting a rover to travel the required 500 m (1,640 ft) across, below or above the Moon surface once it arrives. Judges observed the teams' primary mobility actuators (such as wheels, tracks or thrusters), as well as the methods for driving, pointing and throttling said solutions.
They also judged the onboard sensors that will communicate the robot's speed, position, attitude and more. For robots that separate from a primary craft, the mechanism for deployment, as well as the surface-to-surface communications, were also observed. Individual $500,000 prizes were awarded to Astrobotic, Hakuto (Japan) and Part-Time Scientists (Germany).
Last but not least, the judging panel looked at the robots' imagery tech, including their optics (mirrors, lenses, etc.), image processing capabilities, camera thermal controls, surface-to-surface communications, as well as shutter, pointing and focus mechanisms. Astrobotic and Moon Express picked up prizes here once again, as did Part-Time Scientists. Each of the winners was awarded $250,000 for the category.
The front runners
Of the five entrants, three teams stand out, with Astrobotic having been awarded a prize in each of the three categories, and both Moon Express and Part-Time Scientists receiving two.
Astrobotic is placing an emphasis on affordability with its robot, with the goal of building towards low-cost technologies for planetary exploration, science, resource mining and even tourism.
The team's setup consists of a lander that weighs more than half a metric ton and is around half the size of an SUV. It plans to explore a lunar skylight that's thought to lead to a subsurface cave network. Its lander is, of course, far too large for that task, so those duties have been passed on to a detachable rover that's around the size of a go-cart.
Moon Express is also looking like a front runner, with the team having picked up nods for both its landing and imaging efforts. The project is privately funded, with a focus on making the Moon's resources accessible to mankind.
While Moon Express is a Silicon Valley-based startup and Astrobotic is a spin-off from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, the third team, known as Part Time Scientists, brings something a little different to the table.
The team consists of dozens of engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists collaborating from different locations around the world, all with the goal of furthering future private space exploration efforts. The team's lander weighs around 250 kg (551 lb), including a 25 kg (55 lb) four-wheeled rover that makes use of a vector control system, allowing it to move easily in any direction.
Of course, while those teams appear to be the front runners, the Milestone Prizes are an optional part of the competition, so it's still possible for any of the entrants to nab the grand prize. In the likely event that a Milestone Prize winner takes the Grand Prize, then the existing winnings will be deducted from the final sum.
For more on the Lunar XPrize Milestone Prize winners, check out the video below.