Updated 7:15 p.m. Eastern with comments from Google and X Prize Foundation.
SAN MATEO, Calif. — The foundation running the Google Lunar X Prize announced Jan. 23 that the $20 million grand prize for a commercial lunar lander will expire at the end of March without a winner.
The X Prize Foundation said none of its five finalist teams would be able to launch a mission before the current deadline of March 31. That deadline has been extended several times in the past, but foundation officials previously said there would be no further extensions of the competition.
“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 $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE will go unclaimed,” said a statement by Peter Diamadis, founder and executive chairman of the X Prize Founation, and Marcus Shingles, chief executive of the foundation. The $30 million refers to both the grand prize as well as a $5 million second prize and several ancillary prizes.
“A collective decision was made last year that there would be no more extensions and we have been very open with the public and with our teams that the end date for the competition would be March 31, 2018,” said Chanda Gonzales Mowrer, senior director of prize development and execution at the X Prize Foundation, said in response to SpaceNews questions about the deadline. “This being said, we appreciate Google’s commitment and respect their decision to have the prize purse expire on March 31, 2018, regardless of the progress we are seeing across the teams.”
A Google spokesperson didn’t directly respond to questions about why the internet giant was ending its sponsorship of the prize now, after more than 10 years. “Though the prize is coming to an end, we continue to hold a deep admiration for all Google Lunar XPrize teams, and we will be rooting for them as they continue their pursuit of the moon and beyond.”
The foundation established the prize, with Google’s backing, in September 2007. At the time, the grand prize of $20 million was set to decrease to $15 million if not won by the end of 2012, and expire if not claimed by the end of 2014. However, the competition extended the prize several times as teams experienced technical and fundraising delays.
One year ago, the foundation whittled the competition field, which at the time had 16 teams, to five finalists: Moon Express, SpaceIL, Synergy Moon, TeamIndus and Team Hakuto. Those teams were previously required to launch by the end of 2017, but the foundation tweaked the rules to eliminate the requirement so long as their missions completed by March 31, 2018.
However, it was become clear in recent months that none of the teams were likely to meet that deadline. SpaceIL announced in December a fundraising effort that sought to raise $30 million by the end of the year, but team leaders acknowledged at the time that even if the fundraising effort was successful it would likely not be ready to launch until later in 2018. The Israeli team has not provided an update on those fundraising efforts.
TeamIndus had also sought to raise tens of millions of dollars to complete and launch its lander, but had not disclosed the progress it made amid reports in the Indian media that the Indian space agency ISRO had cancelled its launch contract. The team tweeted Jan. 23 that it will “share what the future holds for us” on Jan. 25.
The TeamIndus lander had planned to carry a rover built by Team Hakuto of Japan under a rideshare agreement between the two teams. That team is run by Japanese startup ispace, which raised $90 million in December for its own lunar mission plans, but declined to comment at the time about whether it thought its rover would launch in time to win the prize.
Moon Express has, in recent months, deemphasized its pursuit of the Google Lunar X Prize while laying out a long-term plan for lunar lander and sample return missions. “The competition has always been a sweetener in the landscape of the business case, but it’s never been the business case itself,” Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, wrote in a recent op-ed. “With Moon Express, we have always been supportive of the competition and have continued to include plans for one or more prize attempts in our maiden mission operations.”
Synergy Moon has released few details about its mission plans, which involve the use of a launch vehicle, Neptune, that has yet to make a first launch.
In their statement, Diamandis and Shingles left open the possibility of keeping the competition alive even after the deadline. “This may include finding a new title sponsor to provide a prize purse following in the footsteps of Google’s generosity, or continuing the Lunar XPRIZE as a non-cash competition where we will follow and promote the teams and help celebrate their achievements,” they wrote.
However, the note also emphasized the achievements the competition made even without a launch attempt, from an estimated $300 million raised by its teams to the award of more than $6 million in milestone prizes to several teams.
“If every XPRIZE competition we launch has a winner, we are not being audacious enough, and we will continue to launch competitions that are literal or figurative moonshots, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” Diamandis and Shingles wrote.
Richards, in his op-ed, also praised the achievements of the competition and said he would be interested if the foundation kept this prize alive in some way or offered future lunar-themed competitions. “If XPRIZE continues to offer lunar incentive prizes, we’ll continue to pursue them.”