Five international teams are moving forward from a field of 33 proposals with the goal of performing a robotic landing on the moon, followed by a short drive and high-quality video mooncast. It's all part of the Google Lunar XPrize competition to incentivize a new, low-cost era of lunar exploration.
Last month, 11 submissions from the five teams were chosen as finalists for so-called "Milestone Prizes", which recognize technological achievement in three sub-categories of innovation – landing system, mobility subsystem and imaging subsystem – that are required to win the grand prize by successfully landing on and then roving and broadcasting from the surface of the Moon. The prizes also come with some cash to keep the projects moving forward.
The five finalists are Astrobotic (US), Moon Express (US), Hakuto (Japan), Part-Time-Scientists (Germany), and Team Indus (India).
The teams now move forward to what's called the "accomplishment round" where they must actually implement the technical capabilities outlined in detailed documentation and plans that they had to submit for judging to advance this far. This will be ongoing, with milestone prizes awarded along the way, until September.
Here's a look at the teams still in the running and their respective visions. Of the five finalists, only Astrobotic and Moon Express are advancing to the accomplishment round in all three subcategories. The Part-time Scientists and Team Indus are advancing in two subcategories, while Hakuto is advancing in one.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and has taken up the ambitious goal of exploring the Moon's north pole for signs of methane, ammonia and water. The company plans to catch a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which will propel its lander and Polaris rover on a 4.5-day trip to the Moon. Once at the Moon's pole, the rover will be able to drill and take core samples.
The company hopes that future missions will include exploration of holes called skylights that lead to lunar caves, and potential resource extraction operations.
Moon Express (USA)
Moon Express is headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Park in California and was founded in 2010 with the goal of sending a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon to kickstart exploration and commercialization of Earth's biggest satellite.
Moon Express is one of the heavier hitters in the competition, and actually went so far as to acquire two of the other American Lunar XPrize competitors. Much of the company's focus is on getting to the Moon on the cheap. After hitching a ride on a rocket, the Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft will set a course for the Moon's southern hemisphere and what the company hopes will be the first of many landings.
Moon Express is taking a long view approach to laying down the track for what it calls the "lunar railroad" that "will provide cost effective exploration and development of Earth's eighth continent."
Hakuto / White Label Space (Japan)
Originally conceived under the name White Label Space in the Netherlands with the idea of offering the team's branding up to the highest bidder, this team relocated to Japan last year and re-named itself Hakuto, with the majority of the original European team leaders stepping down. Scientists from some of Japan's centers of innovation, including Tuhoku University, have stepped in to take the lead.
Hakuto's design relies in part on the large, sturdy wheels on its rovers. This mobility subsystem design is a finalist for a milestone prize. Hakuto has also begun a crowdfunding campaign to raise more funds.
India's lone entrant in the competition, Team Indus is a finalist for milestone prizes for its landing system design and imaging subsystem. The team describes its lunar lander, code-named "HHK1", as "a state of the art, compact, fault tolerant vehicle".
With team members from around the world, but with most based in Germany, the Part-Time Scientists are just that. They often collaborated virtually, and had thought they would be unable to continue the competition due to financial constraints until the milestone prizes were introduced.
The team submitted the fruits of their labor thus far and their designs for a rover and camera plan were selected to advance to the accomplishment round. The team plans to go ahead and test its lander design as well anyway, alongside the rover and camera tests in Austria later this year.
Those are the five teams with technology still in the running for a trip to the Moon. The entire competition culminates with the landing of a robotic spacecraft on the Moon before the cut off date of December 31, 2015.
Source: Google Lunar XPrize
Update (March 11, 2014): A point of clarification. As pointed out by a helpful reader, while technically anyone could still win the grand prize if they manage to land and rove on the Moon, these finalists are the only teams in the running for the optional Milestone prizes to help them get to that point. We apologize for any confusion.