The Google Lunar XPrize finale has been almost a decade in the making, but 2017 will be the year that we finally have lift off. The XPrize foundation has today confirmed the five finalist teams that have secured launch contracts and will make a final push for the Moon's surface (and US$30 million in prize money) before the year is out.
Announced in 2007, the Google Lunar XPrize is a competition designed to encourage and inspire more affordable approaches to robotic space exploration. Of the $30 million on offer, $20 million will be awarded to the first privately funded team to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 m (1,640 ft) and transmit HD video and images of the action back to Earth. $5 million goes to second place while the other $5 million is designated for bonus prizes such as surviving the lunar night.
To those tracking the competition, a few of the names might sound familiar. US startup Moon Express and and its partners at the New Zealand-based Rocket Lab, who teamed up to tackle the Lunar XPrize back in 2015, will send the former's 600 kg (1,320 lb) lander off into space aboard the latter's shiny new rockets. The Moon Express team will launch from Mahia, New Zealand late in 2017.
Japan's Hakuto team, which also has a Moon resources exploration contract with the national space agency JAXA, has parted ways with Astrobotic, on whose Griffin Lander it had previously agreed to hitch a ride into space. It has now partnered with Team Indus, and will instead ride-share with the Indian team's Moon Rover ECA on a PSLV rocket in December 2017. Hakuto also hopes to explore holes in the surface that are believed to be "skylights" into lava tubes beneath.
Israel's SpaceIL team was in fact the first to secure a verified launch contract for the Lunar XPrize, signing a launch agreement with SpaceX back in October 2015. It plans to use a "hopper" style spacecraft to complete the mission, a vehicle that has the ability to land and take off again to explore more freely than ground-based rovers. It is set to launch in late 2017.
And then there is Synergy Moon, the international collaboration that will use its own in-house launch service provided by team member Interorbital Systems. It will lift-off from the ocean off the California coast in the second half of the year.
All five teams have verified launch contracts and the guidelines have been updated to stipulate that each mission must be launched by December 31, 2017. So whoever ends up taking the cake, it seems the Moon's surface is set to see plenty of action in the months ahead.