The five finalists in Google’s private-sector race to the moon have 341 days to launch…and counting

Rising over the hand of a statue in Cairo, Egypt.
Rising over the hand of a statue in Cairo, Egypt.
Image: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
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Five teams now have until the end of the year to launch spacecraft to the moon in search of the $20 million first-place Google Lunar X-Prize.

The X-Prize foundation confirmed today that five teams from around the world demonstrated serious plans to launch in 2017 by the beginning of the year and thus become finalists in the contest: SpaceIL of Israel, MoonExpress of the United States, TeamIndus of India, Hakuto from Japan, and SynergyMoon, an international syndicate.

Fitting for a mad dash into space, the various teams plan to launch their spacecraft on four different rockets over the twelve months, two of which have never flown before.

The prize organization also offered something of a consolation prize to the remaining 11 teams that had been racing to meet the launch deadline, splitting a $1 million”diversity prize” among them.

To win the top prize, the five finalists need to be the first to land a spacecraft on the moon that is capable of transmitting high-definition photos and video back to Earth, and moving 500 meters across the lunar surface. (The second team to complete that mission will win $5 million.) Most of the teams are building rovers but SpaceIL’s probe will hop across the moon on internal thrusters.

It’s been a decade-long journey to get to this point. The prize, announced in 2007, was intended to build on the Ansari X-Prize, which awarded $10 million to the first privately built and flown spacecraft in 2004. But no teams met the original Lunar X-Prize deadline of 2012. The organizers extended the contest for another two years, but eventually decided that if none of the participants could establish plans to launch in 2017 by the beginning of that year, the contest itself would be called off.

The final contenders emerged: First, in 2015, SpaceIL bought a ride-share on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket expected to launch in 2017. Then, MoonExpress signed a launch contract with Rocket Lab to fly on one of their new small-satellite rockets, expected to make their first flights this month. In Aug. 2016, MoonExpress also won regulatory approval for its landing from the US government, an important signpost for future commercial endeavors on the moon.

Team Synergy had its plans approved in Aug. 2016, and expects to fly on an experimental rocket built by Interorbital Systems, a company owned by two of the team’s co-founders, and planned to launch from the open ocean.

And just before the end of year, TeamIndus announced it would launch its moon probe on a PSLV rocket purchased from the Indian Space Research Organization. The Indian-designed PSLV rockets have flown numerous missions for the country’s space agency, including some to Mars, and aim to set a record this year for the most satellites launched on a single vehicle with a cargo of international cubesats.

In that spirit, the final contender is the Japanese team Hakuto, which will pay TeamIndus so that its rover can ride along on the Indian team’s PSLV rocket and spacecraft to the moon.

So who will launch first? That depends on numerous factors. If Rocket Lab’s test flights prove successful, MoonExpress could be one of the first competitors off the ground, but taking a rocket from flight test to commercial use is never a predictable process. Similarly, little is known about Team Synergy’s rocket except that flight testing had not begun as of Oct. 2016; they are reportedly planning to launch by the second half of this year.

SpaceIL is supposed to fly on board a shared Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2017 but at this point it is not clear how delays from SpaceX’s four-month grounding have affected timing.

That leaves TeamIndus and Hakuto on the PSLV. Their mission is currently scheduled for Dec. 28 2017—at the very edge of the contest window—but at this point they have the most likely chance of launching on their planned date, given the open launch schedule and reliable record of the PSLV.

Indeed, the contest organizers have made sure that everyone will have the most time possible: They changed the rules so that a launch must be initiated, not completed, by Dec. 31, 2017: All you need to do is get your rocket off the ground by then, and the game is afoot.