Astrobotic tests its autonomous landing system during a flight aboard Masten Space Systems' rocket-powered Xombie vehicle in June 2014. The test was funded by NASA's Flight Opportunities Program. Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

Dec 20, 2014 XPrize extends deadline for race to the Moon

Sen—Eighteen contenders for the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize have another year to prepare for the race to the Moon.

With just one year to go before the competition was set to expire, officials with the Google-backed XPrize extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2016. At least one team, however, must provide documentation by Dec. 31, 2015, that it has scheduled a launch for the competition to continue another year, XPrize officials announced Tuesday.

“We know the mission we are asking teams to accomplish is extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of the financial considerations. It is for this reason that we have decided to extend the competition timeline,” XPrize president and vice chairman Robert Weiss said in a statement.

“We continue to see significant progress from our Google Lunar XPrize teams,” he added.

The organization also announced Tuesday that one of the GLXP contenders, U.S.-based Astrobotic, won part of a series of companion competitions called Terrestrial Milestone Prizes that were offered to five selected companies for successful ground-based demonstrations of particular technologies needed for the lunar missions.

Astrobotic won $500,000 for demonstrating its spacecraft’s mobility system and $250,000 for demonstrating its imaging subsystem, GLXP said in a statement. A panel of judges evaluated Astrobotics’ demonstrations and technology tests over the past year. The company has one more Milestone Prize pending following a successful demonstration of its landing system, Astrobotic chief executive John Thornton told Sen.

Other companies eligible for Milestone Prizes are: U.S.-based Moon Express, which can compete in all three categories, landing, mobility and imaging; Part-Time Scientists, based primarily in Germany, which can compete for mobility and imaging prizes; Team Indus of India for landing and imaging; and Japan-based Hakuto, for mobility. The interim prizes, worth a total of $6 million, will be awarded on Jan. 26.

"Over the past year, the judging panel has been consistently impressed with the progress seen from the five teams selected to contend for the Milestone Prizes," David Swanson, chairman of the GLXP judging panel, said in a statement.

“We are pleased to recognize Astrobotic for their achievements …. and look forward to awarding additional Milestone Prizes in the coming weeks,” Swanson said.

The Milestone Prizes are intended to be a steppingstone toward the main competition. To win the $20 million first prize, a privately funded team must land a robot on the Moon, have it move at least 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth

Bonus money is available if a vehicle travels more than 5,000 meters, finds water, or touches down near an Apollo landing site or other historic location. Spacecraft launching from Florida are eligible an additional $2 million in state funds.

Second place is worth $5 million. 

The goal of the competition is to spark interest, financial investment and technologies needed for commercial flights and related services to and from the Moon.

"We firmly believe that a whole new economy around low-cost access to the Moon will be the result of the  Google Lunar XPrize," Weiss said.

Astrobotic and Moon Express are both aiming to land on the Moon in 2016—whether or not the XPrize has been won or not.

"At the end of the day for us, it's about our customers and the people flying with us. We go when they are ready to go. If that aligns with XPrize, that's fantastic ... but we're about a business that's carrying payloads and if it aligns great, and if it doesn't then we'll hope that XPrize allows for more time if necessary," Thornton said.

Astrobotic previously had announced plans to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in October 2015. 

The GLXP deadline extension is the competition's second. The original prize deadline was 2012. It was extended in 2009 to Dec. 31, 2015, XPrize spokesman Eric Levine said.