The Google Lunar X Prize competition, which has spent the past decade dangling a $20 million prize for the first privately financed venture to make it to the moon, came to a quiet end today. Not with the ka-boom of a rocket launch or a winner beaming photos back from the lunar surface, but with a tweet and a statement.
The organizers at the X Prize Foundation conceded that none of the five remaining entrants have a chance of getting off the ground by the deadline at the end of March.
The competition, financed by Google and announced with much fanfare in 2007, was a follow-on to the first X Prize competition, for the first privately financed spacecraft to make it to space. That was won by the SpaceShipOne vehicle designed by Burt Rutan and financed by billionaire Paul G. Allen.
Although they were disappointed to not have a winner, the organizers maintained that the competition was a success.
“As a result of this competition, we have sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the moon. Many now believe it’s no longer the sole purview of a few government agencies, but now may be achieved by small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world,” said a statement from Peter H. Diamandis, the foundation’s founder and executive chairman, and Marcus Shingles, the chief executive.
The foundation raised the possibility of a new sponsor or continuing the competition without any cash prizes.
The competition started with more than 25 teams. The five remaining in the end were Moon Express, based in Cape Canaveral, Florida; SpaceIL in Israel; TeamIndus in India; Hakuto in Japan; and Synergy Moon, an international collaboration.
At the end of last year, SpaceIL and TeamIndus both came up short in trying to raise needed financing. The parent company of the Hakuto team had the money — in December, it announced it had obtained $90 million in investment — but it was counting on piggybacking on TeamIndus’ lander to get to the moon. Moon Express also has the money it needs, but it has yet to have the ribbon-cutting on the new facility where it will assemble its lander. Synergy Moon has said little about its progress.
When the competition was first announced, the deadline for launching was the end of 2014. It was then extended several times, to 2015, then 2016 and again to 2017.
Meanwhile, China accomplished what the X Prize teams could not. It landed its Chang’e 3 spacecraft on the moon in 2013. China and India are both planning to land robotic missions on the moon this year.
Last August, the foundation announced one last change, giving the winning team until the end of March to complete the mission. This time, Google insisted that there would no additional extensions.
Bob Richards, the chief executive of Moon Express, paid tribute to the prize, even though it was never awarded. “The existence of the prize has been and will continue to be, an important part of the history of humanity’s permanent return to the moon,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the current issue of Space News.
But he has also said that winning the prize was not an essential aspect of his company’s business plan, which is to provide recurring transportation for payloads to the moon.
SpaceIL, TeamIndus and Hakuto all said they are continuing their efforts to send their spacecraft to the moon.
Two X Prize teams that dropped out earlier, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and PTScientists, based in Berlin, are also continuing development of their moon vehicles.