The Google Lunar XPrize competition is heating up

While Team Synergy Moon, SpaceIL and Moon Express have secured a contract to launch their spacecraft, the remaining 13 teams, including TeamIndus, have until 31 December to do so


16 teams are part of the Google Lunar XPrize competition, including India’s TeamIndus.
16 teams are part of the Google Lunar XPrize competition, including India’s TeamIndus.

Mumbai: On 30 August, XPrize announced that it had officially verified US-based Team Synergy Moon’s launch agreement as part of the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize—a global competition for privately funded teams to land an unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the moon by 31 December 2017. The Synergy Moon mission will use a NEPTUNE 8 rocket, built and launched by Interorbital Systems, to carry a lunar lander and at least one rover to the surface of the moon, launching from an open-ocean location off the California coast during the second half of 2017.

Other than Synergy Moon, two other teams—SpaceIL and Moon Express—have secured a contract to launch their spacecraft. On 7 October 2015, SpaceIL said in Jerusalem that it will use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for the XPrize challenge. Two months later, US-based Moon Express announced it will be using the MX-1E lunar lander on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

The remaining 13 teams, including India’s TeamIndus, have until 31 December this year for their launch agreements to be verified by XPrize in order to proceed in the competition.

To win the Google Lunar XPrize, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the moon’s surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to earth, before the mission deadline of 31 December 2017.

“This was a two-line problem statement though it was a 110-page legal contract,” says Narayan who recalls signing “an abridged contract which specified four things—our business plan, technology plan, risk mitigation plan and our branding strategy”. TeamIndus submitted these four documents and were announced as a formal team on 14 February, 2011.

TeamIndus, on its part, plans to use Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle to take off from earth. It is a 14-minute journey. The spacecraft gets injected into the earth’s orbit and after that, it is on its own. The spacecraft that TeamIndus built qualified for about 24 tests certified by Nasa scientists at Isro’s Bengaluru facility, for which they got the $1 million Milestone Prize. The spacecraft, which has its own propulsion system, has to slow down and land. The landing is the most complicated piece of the technology.

The spacecraft will approach the moon, travelling at close to 2.5km/second—the speed at which a bullet travels. If it is not able to slow down correctly and accurately, the craft would probably just orbit out of the moon. If it slows down too fast, it can get pulled into the lunar gravity and crash-land on the moon. Hence, sensors on the spacecraft will scan the lunar surface, map out the various routes, analyse which one to get into and then land on that particular surface. All the materials and parts for the spacecraft that TeamIndus has built are from India.

The first team that successfully completes this mission will be awarded the $20 million grand prize. The second team gets $5 million. To win either of these prizes, teams must prove that 90% of their mission costs were funded by private sources. Teams have until the end of 2016 to announce a verified launch contract and complete their mission by the end of 2017.

Only three countries have ever soft-landed on the moon—the US, the former Soviet Union and China.

“Soft landing” refers to the landing by a spacecraft on the moon or a planet at a sufficiently low velocity for the equipment or occupants to remain unharmed. China’s soft landing on 14 December 2013, took place 37 years after the erstwhile USSR soft landed on the Moon on 22 August 1976. The Luna 9 spacecraft, launched by the Soviet Union, performed the first successful soft moon landing on 31 January 1966. That very year in May, the US’s Surveyor 1 spacecraft first soft landed on the moon.

The last of the Luna series of spacecraft, the mission of the Luna 24 probe, was the third Soviet mission to retrieve lunar ground samples in August 1976.

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