2017-01-25 04:37:11
For 5 Contest Finalists, a $20 Million Dash to the Moon

04:37, January 25 205 0

The surface of the moon may soon be dotted with corporate logos, and its craters labeled with slogans. Families might be able to send their loved ones’ ashes — or even their pets’ remains — for lunar burial.

Entrepreneurs hope that commercial ventures expand in lucrative ways in later years. In a farther, fanciful future, for example, the moon could be mined for platinum, a valuable metal, or helium-3, to be used as fuel for fusion energy reactors that do not yet exist.

Private access to the moon grew a little closer to reality on Tuesday, when the X Prize Foundation, with prizes financed by Google, chose five teams of private entrepreneurs who say they can get to the moon by the end of this year.

If any of them succeeds — the deadline has been pushed back several times — it could usher in an era of extraterrestrial commerce and renew interest in our long-ignored moon.

“It’s incentivized this whole business of the niche space economy,” said Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, a senior director at the X Prize Foundation, which runs the contest.

The five finalist teams span the globe: Moon Express in the United States, Hakuto in Japan, SpaceIL in Israel, Team Indus in India, and Synergy Moon, an international collaboration.

The X Prize Foundation was founded by Peter H. Diamandis, an entrepreneur who wanted to use competitions to encourage technological innovation in the way that aviation prizes in the early 20th century helped transform airplanes from a dangerous avocation of barnstormers to a commonplace mode of transportation.

The first X Prize award of $10 million in 2004 went to the first private spaceship that could take people 62 miles up, into outer space. That led to the founding of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which aims to take tourists to the edge of space for a few minutes of weightlessness.

The foundation began a similar competition in 2007 to point attention to the moon. To win the top $20 million prize, a spacecraft must land on the moon, move 500 meters and send back video and photographs. The second team to accomplish the task wins $5 million. The contest also offers $5 million in bonus prizes, for feats like surviving the cold lunar night and traveling more than 5,000 meters on the surface.

The next 11 months are a dash to finish team designs, assemble spacecraft and prepare for launching. And the teams differ on their approaches.

Rahul Narayan, the leader of Team Indus, said the engineers had to develop their own computer, software, power system and other components when the initial approach of buying off-the-shelf satellite parts did not work out, increasing costs. Mr. Narayan now estimates the price tag at $70 million to $75 million.

The Hakuto team, with a $10 million budget, is not building a lander at all, but hitching a ride for its rover with Team Indus. If Team Indus is the first to land on the moon, its rover and Hakuto’s will race to travel the 500 meters to capture the $20 million prize. Both rovers have a top speed of about 4 inches a second.

“We think that we can beat them on the moon,” said Takeshi Hakamada, the leader of Hakuto (pronounced HOCK-tow).

For SpaceIL and Synergy Moon, the main goal is not starting a business, but inspiring the next generation. “Kind of like Jacques Cousteau did with ocean exploration,” said Kevin Myrick, a founder of Synergy Moon.

Eran Privman, the chief executive of SpaceIL, said attracting the interest of venture capitalists would have been difficult for the company, because the return on investment would have been a couple of decades in the future. So instead of trying to be a profitable business, his team seeks to inspire children in Israel. “Just like Apollo in the United States in the ’60s,” he said.

Moon Express, based in Cape Canaveral, Fla., has followed a more conventional business path, soliciting investors. It is building a scaled-down lander to fit into a small, $5 million rocket called Electron, developed by a start-up company, Rocket Lab.

It will carry a reflecting mirror experiment that bounces back laser beams from Earth, the same type of experiment that Apollo astronauts left behind on the moon. The lead scientist for the experiment, Douglas Currie, a retired physicist from the University of Maryland, was a key member of the Apollo laser experiments.

SpaceIL and Moon Express are eschewing rovers. To fulfill the 500-meter requirement, both instead intend to have their landers lift off and land again.

And the companies all still face challenges. Moon Express’s ride, the Electron, has yet to launch even once. “It’s not a blind bet,” Mr. Richards said, but he conceded that it was also not a sure thing. Synergy Moon also plans to launch on an unproven rocket.

Yet even some of teams that have dropped out have not given up.

Two former competitors, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and Part-Time Scientists in Berlin are continuing with their moon plans, just not by the end of this year.

Astrobotic, which now plans to launch its spacecraft in 2019, has announced partnerships with DHL, the delivery company, and signed up customers for its trips including Elysium Space, which plans to offer the possibility of sending human remains to the moon. “The X Prize is not really the core driving thing anymore,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive.

Robert Boehme, the leader of Part-Time scientists, said his team — which is backed by Audi, the carmaker — had a contract to launch in mid-2018. “It’s too risky to try to accelerate it,” he said.

Its rover will have the four-ring Audi logo on the front and be called the Audi lunar quattro, echoing the name of one of Audi’s cars.