When a couple dozen companies sign contracts containing the words “moon” and “landing,” it’s a good indication that private lunar exploration is heating up.
The X Prize Foundation on Thursday announced that 29 teams had signed contracts making them the official Google Lunar X Prize competitors, contending for more than $30 million in prizes. The competitors, headquartered in 17 different countries, have been crafting promising business plans and rolling out prototypes. One team, Astrobotic Technology, has even arranged its rocket ride to the moon.
“We could be intimidated by that development, but it’s good for everyone who’s serious about going to the moon,” said Michael Joyce, president of competing team Next Giant Leap. “It shows this industry has moved beyond being an idea, that it is really going to happen.”
To claim the first-place prize of $20 million before 2015 (it drops to $5 million after that), a team must land a robot on the moon, move it at least 500 meters and beam back high-definition imagery. Additional $2 million bonuses are available for robots that can survive one bitterly cold two-week lunar night or travel 5 kilometers, among other challenges.
Google and the X Prize Foundation jointly announced the competition in September 2007, but the duo has worked with dozens of teams for years to finalize fair rules that foster progress instead of stunts.
“We want to encourage a financially sustainable era of lunar exploration. The Apollo program and Soviet programs were fantastically inspiring, but they stopped just as they really started to scratch the surface,” said planetary scientist William Pomerantz, a senior director at the X Prize Foundation. “Flags and footprints aren’t sustainable. We want the teams to trigger business much larger in value than our prize.”