Two teams competing in the Google Lunar Xprize have partnered to secure a ride to the Moon aboard a SpaceX rocket in late 2016.
Japanese Hakuto and US Astrobotic have become the first of the 18 contenders for the $30m prize to announce firm launch plans.
Astrobotic will be the main launch procurer with its Griffin lander carrying not only the company's rover called Andy but also providing room for two Hakuto rovers named Moonraker and Tetris travelling as a piggyback.
The announcement seems to guarantee there will be quite some suspense until the final minutes of the race. To win the award, the competitors are not only required to reach the lunar surface but also to traverse 500 metres capturing HD video and sending it back to Earth.
The first team to achieve the feat would bag the main $20m award, with the runner-up receiving $5m. A further $5m was awarded earlier this year among the teams as part of the so called Milestone Prizes focusing on the technical solutions proposed by individual teams.
"I am very excited to announce this rideshare contract with Astrobotic," said Takeshi Hakamada, Hakuto team leader and CEO of ispace. "This contract enables Hakuto to actually send our rover to the Moon, which is important because Hakuto is only concentrating on rover development.”
Astrobotic’s CEO John Thorton commented: “We envision a ‘NASCAR on the Moon’ scenario, where competing teams land together, and countries can cheer on their team to the finish line.”
Both teams, Astrobotic and Hakuto, succeeded in the Milestone Prizes in January. Astrobotic in particular reigned in the competition, having secured prizes in all three categories, which focused on landing, mobility and imaging solutions. Hakuto was one of the three teams receiving an award for its mobility solution.
The two teams will attempt to land in the Moon’s north-eastern Lacus Mortis region. Images from spacecraft orbiting the moon suggest that Lacus Mortis holds a pit or a skylight, and could potentially be an entrance to a lunar cave. These caves are thought to be lava tubes and could prove scientifically important in explaining the Moon's volcanic past. Longer-term, they have potential to house habitats that would protect humans from the hostile lunar environment.
"We are delighted that two of our teams have engaged in this partnership for their Google Lunar XPRIZE missions," said Andrew Barton, director of technical operations, Google Lunar XPRIZE. "Stimulating new business ecosystems is one of the core goals of any XPRIZE competition, and this joint venture is an excellent example of how humanity's commercial and economic interests will expand into space in the coming years.”
The deadline for the competition, announced in 2007, was originally set for end 2015. However, as the end of 2014 approached without any of the teams securing a launch date, the organisers decided to extend to deadline until 31 December 2016.
The competition participants have already been beaten to the Moon by China and its Yutu rover, which has been on the Moon since late 2013. Originally, the main prize was expected to be cut to $15m if any government-funded mission made it to the Moon first, reflecting the fact that at the time of the announcement, the last man-made object to have soft-landed on the lunar surface did so in 1976. The condition was, however, dropped after the Chinese success.