Science

Space boffins competing for $20m Moon robot X-Prize are told: Be there by March 31 – or bust

Teams get extra wiggle room to hit final deadline

By Andrew Silver

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The X-Prize Foundation has cut some slack for teams vying to be the first to land a robot on the Moon and scoop millions of dollars as a result.

Launched in 2007, the Google-backed Lunar X-Prize contest promises to hand out $20m to the first private company that gets a bot trundling at least 500 metres on the Moon's surface while beaming back HD video and snaps to Earth. Second place will get $5m. Roughly $6m has already been handed out to five groups for completing various milestones.

Those finalists are: SpaceIL in Israel; Moon Express in the US; Synergy Moon, based around the world; TeamIndus in India; and HAKUTO in Japan.

On Wednesday this week, it was announced the competition's finalists no longer have to launch their Moon droids by the end of this year.

Instead, they have until March 31, 2018, to complete all the goals set by the judges. This date was actually set back in 2016: what's changed is that the requirement to get lunar robots into space by the end of 2017 is gone, so now it's just the Moon or bust before April next year.

An X-Prize spokesperson told The Register it has adjusted its deadlines a few times in the past to take into account the availability of launchers, and so on: "When a competition spans years, and we are asking teams to do something that literally has never been done before, the reality for the competing teams can shift dramatically."

The contest's organizers also added two more milestones: complete one orbit around the Moon, or enter a direct descent approach to the lunar surface, and win $1.75m; and transmit from the surface and bag $3m. Essentially, you get milestone prizes for completing various tasks, and the $20m jackpot for being first to cover all the mission requirements, and $5m for second place.

"There were several teams making good progress," Ryan Russell, an aerospace engineer who studies spaceflight mechanics at the University of Austin Texas, told The Register. He added the scrapping of the end-of-year launch deadline was "not surprising [because] the lunar competition was extremely ambitious."

Clemens Rumpf, a space systems postdoctoral researcher at University of Southampton in the UK, told us removing the launch deadline constraint will "give some of these teams a reasonable chance to win the competition."

They may have had unforeseen and last-minute gremlins, or need to overhaul their designs, he said. It "might not even be their fault" if they couldn't make the end-of-2017 deadline: there could be backlogs in rocket launch schedules that would stall their plans, forcing them to miss the goal. Last year, for example, SpaceX temporarily delayed launches after its Falcon 9 rocket blew up.

An X-Prize spokesperson told The Register: "Both X-Prize and Google want to see this competition won, and remain hopeful that we will see one or more teams complete their missions by the March 31, 2018 date."

The Moon Express team welcomed the removal of the launch deadline constraint. Although its spokesperson said it is confident it will hit the final deadline, it now has more time to reduce the risk of failure and test its equipment. It also hopes to perform three lunar expeditions by 2020.

The other teams were not available for immediate comment. ®

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