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Google Spurs Amazing Robot Race To The Moon

With the space economy heating up, the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize aims to jump-start robotic technology to advance celestial exploration.

Google Spurs Amazing Robot Race To The Moon
Moon Express MX-1 Scout Class Explorer

Now this is an amazing race!

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Five privately funded startups from around the world are in the final months of a fascinating $30 million competition funded by Google to land a robot on the moon.

The winner of the Lunar XPrize’s top payout—$20 million—must be the first to land its rover on the moon, travel 500 meters across its surface, and transmit high-resolution images and video back to Earth. The runner-up gets $5 million, and the remainder will be divided up for other innovations.

While the windfall represents just a fraction of the competitors’ costs, the victor will get untold exposure and, likely, crucial investment dollars as the space economy heats up and scientists and engineers look for cheaper ways to go where no one has gone before—with robot explorers.

The moon is increasingly seen as an important base to test new tech—like boiling water from a rock and innovative ways to traverse planetary surfaces—that will lay the groundwork for future missions.

“I think in some ways it’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened in recent years, that some private companies are beginning to take a serious interest [in travel to the moon],” says lunar exploration expert Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology at the University of London’s Birkbeck College.

The Five Teams

There’s more at stake than money for the five teams, who have already booked rides for their robotic landers on various private companies’ rockets. There’s also national pride for the scientists from Israel, Japan, the U.S., Britain, and especially India.

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TeamIndus, a partly crowdfunded effort based in India, has an avid following across the nation, fleet commander Rahul Narayan tells Fast Company. Indian media has celebrated the team’s youth (its youngest member is reportedly 22) and the prevalence of female engineers.

The team hopes to launch its robot in late December, on a rocket contracted from the Indian Space Research Organization, the national space agency. The agency’s rocket will take a 600-kilogram TeamIndus lunar lander and its onboard robotic rover into Earth’s orbit, where it will continue on to the moon. The rolling rover weighs 7 kilograms, and carries a pair of high-definition cameras and a gold thermal blanket to insulate it from the sun’s radiation. Including the launch and costs of the spacecraft and rover, the mission is expected to cost about $70 million.

“While we expect stiff competition from Israel, we are hoping to be the fourth nation after the U.S., Russia, and China to land gently on the lunar surface and unfurl its national flag,”  marketing official Sheelika Ravishankar told YourStory, an Indian news outlet.

Hitching a ride on TeamIndus’s rocket will be Japan’s Team Hakuto. Named for a white rabbit that in Japanese folklore lives on the moon and led by Japanese space startup Ispace, the team has sponsorships from more than 20 companies and is already planning future expeditions  to harness natural resources from the moon. Its lunar rover, with a body constructed from lightweight carbon-fiber-enforced plastic and wheels 3D-printed from heat-resistant Ultem resin, weighs just 4 kilograms. It serves in part as a showpiece for Japan’s often-touted expertise in miniaturization engineering.

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“Our objective here is to validate our micro-rover technology,” says Ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada.

While Japan is going small, Israel’s rover, at 500 kilograms, is about the size of a dishwasher, and instead of rolling on the lunar surface, it will hop, says officials with Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, which is spending $70 million on its Lunar XPrize entry. The startup has signed a launch deal with Elon Musk’s space startup SpaceX and hopes to energize a generation of young Israeli scientists the way the Apollo missions inspired Americans in the 1960s. Once in space, it will use the same propulsion system to reach the lunar surface and take its 500-meter hop.

The U.S. contender is MoonExpress, cofounded by serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Naveen Jain and backed by at least $45 million in venture funding. Its MX-1 Lunar Scout rover, which, thanks to a lightweight carbon composite body weighs 250 kilograms fully fueled, will also hop rather than roll across the lunar surface. It’s expected to get to space on an Electron spacecraft from launch startup Rocket Lab. The rocket launch alone will cost about $5 million, Jain says, though that’s on top of the cost to develop and build its lunar rover.

A fifth team, called Synergy Moon, is an international consortium that includes  California rocket maker Interorbital Systems, space settlement startup InterPlanetary Ventures and Britain’s RPC Telecommunications.

The startup has announced plans to launch a custom rocket with an onboard lunar lander off the California coast, and will reportedly carry the first lunar internet server, as well as cameras and a telescope for observing the surface and beyond. The team says it will transport a pair of internet-connected rovers, including one focused on visual communication, and one with sensors designed to study lunar rocks and minerals.

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“Not one of the team’s spacecraft is alike, and they are all attempting to go with a different launch provider,” writes Google Lunar XPrize senior director Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, in an email to Fast Company. “Only time will tell which team’s technology gets them to the moon first; regardless, I am certain that the technologies that are created by the teams will spur further innovation to help private and government lunar exploration for years to come.” The teams have all been featured in a web documentary series backed by J.J. Abrams.

Why Back To The Moon?

Interest in a return to the moon has been growing in recent years, and the reason is not so much the moon itself but, rather, how the moon can help in our planet’s ambitions to further explore space, send humans to space, and even mine asteroids.

Vice President Mike Pence earlier this year called on NASA to return, and China, Japan, and Russia have also announced government-sponsored plans for crewed missions to the lunar surface by the 2030s. And just last week, the U.S. House Science Subcommittee on Space held hearings on ways to aid private moon-bound missions.

Google’s competition is via the famed XPrize Foundation, known for its previous multimillion-dollar contests for suborbital flight and hyper-efficient cars. Google announced the moonshot race roughly a decade ago as a kind of futuristically minded publicity stunt, when the search engine giant perhaps had a nerdier public image.

Several of the startups are keen to return in future years, beyond this competition, in hopes of leading what they hope could become a prosperous lunar economy.

Who Owns The Moon?

A 2015 U.S. law explicitly grants companies the right to explore space and commercialize natural resources found there, and other countries have passed similar legislation. But one potential hitch is that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans countries from claiming sovereignty over territory in space, and some space entrepreneurs and politicians have suggested the treaty may need updating to support commercial space activity.

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But in the meantime, the XPrize teams and others already have thoughts on how lunar resources can be used for the benefit of humanity—and for profit.

As space travel becomes more prevalent, one of the most valuable extraterrestrial commodities is water, which in addition to keeping astronauts hydrated can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen, the basis for rocket fuel.

Researchers and space entrepreneurs anticipate the day when they’ll be able to get water from icy asteroids to stock the space equivalent of gas stations. But recent observations from NASA and other space industries have indicated water can be found closer to Earth—deep inside the moon, and even potentially close to the celestial body’s surface.

“That changed the ideas of the industry,” says Hakamada. “The main advantage is the time to travel to the moon: It’s just a few days.”

In fact, one suggested path for asteroid mining involves first bringing one of the objects, or parts of it, closer to earth, perhaps in orbit around the moon. But putting together water-extraction equipment for the moon, where gravity is less powerful than on the earth but still a potent force, might also be easier than designing for smaller asteroids, where gravity is close to nonexistent, Hakamada suggests.

The moon is also widely believed to be rich in valuable metals like platinum and titanium, as well as helium-3, a form of the lighter-than-air element that’s seen as a promising fuel for clean nuclear fusion reactors. They, in theory, would produce energy without the toxic waste from today’s fission reactors, though nobody’s yet developed one close to commercially viable.

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Commercial lunar travel will likely also lead to more scientific research, even if that’s not the principal reason companies are heading to the moon. Moon Express announced a deal in late July with the International Lunar Observatory Association, a nonprofit promoting moon-based research, to transport scientific equipment to the moon’s south pole in 2019.

The research station will take the first images of the Milky Way from the moon, the groups said. Moon Express will be using the same mission to search the area for water and mineral resources. And if commercial-crewed missions to the moon take place in the future, observatory association director Steve Durst says they’ll be able to calibrate and maintain mostly autonomous scientific equipment.

“I don’t think that humans will go to the moon just to do astronomy, but when humans go to the moon, they will do astronomy,” says Durst.

Exactly what will make lunar travel commercially viable—water, minerals, helium, or something else entirely—remains to be seen, moon entrepreneurs freely acknowledge.

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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