Will this be the best trip ever? A rocket ride around the moon and back to earth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Will this be the best trip ever? A rocket ride around the moon and back to earth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rival teams from Japan and India that had hoped to land a rover on the moon have been handed a huge setback after the Google Lunar XPRIZE contest in which they were competing was shut down.

Organisers cited a number of challenges, including financial and technical issues, for their surprise decision to end the competition in late January when five teams were still in the running.

“After close consultation with our five finalist Google Lunar XPRIZE teams over the past several months, we have concluded that no team will make a launch attempt to reach the moon by the March 31st, 2018 deadline,” Peter H Diamandis, XPRIZE Founder and Executive Chairman, and CEO Marcus Shingles said in a brief statement.

“This literal ‘moonshot’ is hard, and while we did expect a winner by now, due to the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges, the grand prize of the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE will go unclaimed.”

They said options were being considered for the competition to be revived, including finding a new sponsor or eliminating the prize incentive altogether. Google was the competition sponsor and the board of trustees included filmmaker and explorer James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page.

XPRIZE said its mission was to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition. There was to be a first prize of US$20 million for the first team to land a rover on the moon that could travel more than 500 meters and transmit back high-definition images and video. Two US$5 million prizes were to be awarded for extra features, including roving longer distances.

However, the claim by the event organizers in early 2016 “that five teams have verified launch contracts and are moving forward to the final phase of the competition to land an unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the moon” proved to be wildly off-target.

India’s TeamIndus and Japan’s Team Hakuto made it to the shortlist from 30 teams in 17 countries that signed up in 2007 to design and land a rover, along with Team SpaceIL of Israel, Team Moon Express of the USA and the international Team Synergy Moon. But all failed to make launch attempts to the moon by the March 31 deadline.

TeamIndus had trouble attracting financial backers, though the Japanese were well-funded. In fact, their team managed to raise $US90.2 million, a record for any entrant: XPRIZE said this sent “a strong signal that commercial lunar exploration is on the trajectory to success”.

As the competition drew to a close, the Indian and Japanese teams were the only entrants that could agree on a shared launch to the moon aboard an ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) before the latest  revised deadline. Signed in 2016 by TeamIndus and ISRO’s commercial space arm ANTRIX Corporation, the deal was abruptly cancelled on January 25 this year.

“Antrix and TeamIndus are mutually terminating the launch services agreement signed in 2016. Antrix remains committed to encouraging and promoting private enterprise in space,” Antrix said. “TeamIndus will continue with its goal of building a world-class private aerospace company.”

Some are questioning whether ISRO got cold feet because it didn’t want to send two privately-funded spacecraft to the surface of the moon just before its own lunar expedition, due to be launched in March. There may also have been technical issues, as the PSLV failed in a launch attempt last year.

Why TeamIndus waited until the last moment to notify the Japanese that the deal was being terminated is also puzzling. Tomoya Mori, business development officer at Tokyo-based ispace, a private sector space venture which managed Team Hakuto, confirmed that the team had never had any direct contact with ISRO.

“We were informed about the (status of) TeamIndus’ launch contract with ISRO when the news came out in India in early January. This is space exploration and development, (so) we always expected risks associated with the race,” said Mori. Neither XPRIZE nor ISRO responded to Asia Times’ emails.

Mori said ispace was developing its own lunar lander/rover, and was striving “to secure transportation to and on the Moon.”

“(We saw) the Hakuto mission as an important technological demonstration,” he added, offering some hope that private lunar exploration initiatives might continue.

XPRIZE also tried to put a positive spin on the competition. “We are inspired by the progress of the Google Lunar XPRIZE teams, and will continue to support their journey, one way or another, and will be there to help shine the spotlight on them when they achieve that momentous goal,” its statement said.