Google Lunar XPrize: the new space race

Following WWII, the US and Soviet Union developed rockets capable of striking enemy territory located on the other side of the world.

Then, when the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1959, the arms race was catapulted from the atmosphere to Low Earth Orbit and then to the Moon, the ultimate high ground.

So when humans first went to the moon on 20 July, 1969, it was as much about politics as it was about technological advancement. And the focus for lunar travel certainly wasn’t about the long term goal of developing a space economy nor privately funded space travel.

Today a great deal more focus is placed on developing galactic capitalism. For the most part though, this has so far been largely limited to satellites, research and a few ongoing attempts at space tourism and has been the playground of governments or the super wealthy. Until now.

Enter the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30m competition designed to inspire pioneers to do robotic space transport on a budget. Competitors are vying for a $20m grand prize to land a privately funded robot on the moon and then travel 500 metres while recording the feat, which must be completed by 31 December, 2016.

In total, 35 teams from around the world have joined the Google Lunar XPrize race to the moon including 13 from the US and other teams from Israel, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Brazil, Canada, India, Chile, Romania, Russia and a number of international teams.

Team focus

John Thornton, CEO of team Astrobotic, with their Griffin Moon lander after their big milestone prizes win in the Google Lunar XPrize  - image courtesy of Google.
John Thornton, CEO of team Astrobotic, with their Griffin Moon lander after their big milestone prizes win in the Google Lunar XPrize – image courtesy of Google.

Google recently offered three milestone prizes to teams that could display strong development for landing, mobility and imaging.

While a number of teams won one or two prizes, only Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic walked away with all three.

The Manufacturer caught up with Astrobotic CEO John Thornton at the recent Solid Works World conference in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was presenting.

The Astrobotic team has taken a lead role in the competition and has partnered with a number of the other teams to share the cost of the trip to the moon. Although, says Thornton, there is still certainly a contest amongst the partners.

“At the end of the day once we get to the moon, there will be a genuine competition to be the first to drive 500 metres. It will be like Nascar on the moon. So there still is the competition factor but in terms of the business, it reduces the risk for every team that comes with us.”

Astrobotic is aiming to launch in the second half of 2016 and will purchase an entire Falcon 9 rocket, which will be launched by Elon Musk’s Space X company.

“By having the entire Falcon, we control the risk profile of who flies with us. We control the time of when it actually flies. We can also use the entire falcon throw to get us into trans lunar injection (TLI) – which is being thrown towards the moon,” says Thornton.

“All we have to do from there is build the single stage space craft that will break out of the lunar orbit and descend down to the surface. There is a vast simplicity by not having to do a TLI kick which would be an extra stage.”

Space X is responsible up until the point when Astrobotic will be released and then the responsibility is for the lunar delivery will be firmly on the shoulders of Thornton and his team.

Thornton’s excitement for the opportunity to create a lunar landing attempt is palpable and he is certainly thankful for the opportunity which the Google Lunar XPrize has created.

“I think Google is about showing that large seemingly impossible things can actually become reality and they believe in the future and they believe in game-changing technology,” he said.

“And I think it is a good example of Google stepping up and putting their money where their values are.”

It’s not just about the Google Lunar X Prize though

For Astrobotic and the other competitors though, the moon mission is about more than just the Google prize.

Indeed, a mission to the moon is on order of $50-$100m and so a $30m prize doesn’t stack up against the investment and risks of the competition.

The target for the teams is to develop viable private space businesses models, something Astrobotic believes it has done.

“The business model is lunar delivery and that is a viable and profitable business and that is proved by what we’ve seen,” says Thornton.

“We’re going to have some very cool announcements over the next couple of months that will foreshadow what we are seeing in the market. There is a dramatic demand worldwide for going to the moon and we are tapping that.”

According to Astrobotic the various markets which they hope to tap into in the near future include:

  • Branding and advertising
  • University research and experiments
  • International space agencies
  • Space and lunar scientists

“The traditional way you get into space if you are a lunar scientist that wants to do an experiment, you have your science and you go to the scientific community in your nation and you convince the science community that you have the best science.

“And then you go to your local space agency and you convince them to spend $300m to send you to the moon. And then you probably also need to have political approval as well. The barrier to entry for a lunar scientist that wants to do basic research and experimentation is dramatically huge.”

The Astrobotic service offering by comparison means scientists can can spend a few million dollars rather than $300m to do small scale research and development on the moon. And Thornton says that model is easily expandable across the world.

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin setting up the seismometer, part of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP) on the lunar surface - image courtesy of Nasa.
Astronaut Edwin Aldrin setting up the seismometer, part of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP) on the lunar surface – image courtesy of Nasa.

NASA is also interested in conducting experimentation on the moon and interested in conducting resource related missions to the pole of the moon and are also interested in creating a lunar geo physical network using seismographs that are distributed across the surface in order to determine if the moon is seismically active and experiences moonquakes for example.

“Resources are inevitable on the moon,” says Thornton, “but utilising them is a little further out. We think that the short term market is in the delivery to the moon for science and exploration and fundamental resource. Overtime, it could be about resources or human settlement or even the site of the next international space station.”

“There is a rock that is orbiting our sun today that is of the order of 20km across and has more metal in it than mankind has ever mined including the rare stuff like gold and platinum.

“A lot of the terrestrial mines are located near impact sites and so why not go direct to the source. So eventually that will make economic sense. It doesn’t right now but eventually it will and I think it is inevitable and it is just a matter of time to get the technology and price point to the stage where it makes sense.”

So where does Thornton see the space economy developing after the Google X Prize and is Mars on the agenda?

“I think the moon is a natural stepping stone. The moon is our backyard. We need to learn to live off the land. We need to learn to live sustainably for a longer time. And we need to just figure out the basics of living on another orbiting body before we can then take the bigger leaps and go towards Mars, for example.

“The amount of technology and development that is necessary to get there is dramatic and we need to learn to camp in the backyard before we go to the arctic.

“In my lifetime I think that resources will start to break but I think the best shot for human outposts on the moon is government policy shifting towards that and I think that is very viable in my lifetime.”