Google Lunar XPRIZE Competition To Land On The Moon Sees Israeli Company Take The Lead

SpaceIL plan to land this spacecraft on the Moon in late 2017. SpaceIL.

A clear frontrunner has emerged in the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) contest that is challenging private companies to land a spacecraft on the Moon. An Israeli-based team is the first to purchase a launch contract – a flight on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, expected in the second half of 2017 – in a bid to win the competition.

If all goes to plan, the Tel Aviv-based company known as SpaceIL will not only scoop first place and a $20 million (£13 million) share of the $30 million (£20 million) prize fund, but it will also become only the fourth organization or agency to land on the Moon (the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China are the others), and obviously the first Israeli effort. 

"We are proud to officially confirm receipt and verification of SpaceIL’s launch contract, positioning them as the first and only Google Lunar XPRIZE team to demonstrate this important achievement, thus far," said Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE, in a statement.

"The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately-funded organization, and kicks off an exciting phase of the competition in which the other 15 teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts. It gives all of us at XPRIZE and Google the great pride to say, 'the new space race is on!'"

The lander is designed to "hop" across the Moon. SpaceIL.

The GLXP was first announced on 13 September 2007, challenging private companies to land a robot on the Moon, travel 500 meters (1,640 feet), and send images and video back to Earth by 31 December 2017. Aside from the $20 million (£13 million) prize for first place, second place will receive $5 million (£3 million), and there are various other technical bonuses as well, such as driving further than the challenge distance on the lunar surface.

The XPRIZE organization has run a number of competitions attempting to encourage technological breakthroughs, with perhaps the most well-known being the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, which was won by SpaceShipOne after its pilot Mike Melvill flew on a short trip to space in 2004 (the company is now part of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic).

Other teams in the 16-strong GLXP field include Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic Technology, and Silicon Valley-backed Moon Express. Both have publicly claimed they have launches in the works – but IFLScience understands that neither has begun the verification process with the XPRIZE organization like SpaceIL, making the Israeli team the frontrunner. All the other teams now have until the end of 2016 to also announce launch contracts as per the terms of the prize (the previous deadline was the end of this year).

The spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceIL.

SpaceIL’s announcement was made possible after an additional round of fundraising. Its launch will be managed by American space company Spaceflight Industries, with SpaceIL’s lander given the "primary cargo" spot in the Falcon 9 rocket. When the capsule separates from the rocket, the spacecraft will use its own propulsion system and automagnetic navigation sensors to reach the lunar surface.

The exact logistics of how the landing will work are currently under wraps, no doubt keeping key information from their competitors, but images reveal SpaceIL’s lander has four feet that will touch down on the surface. The spacecraft, about the size of a dishwasher, will then perform a single "hop" across the surface using its onboard fuel to surpass the required distance of 500 meters, rather than moving like a rover. 

It will be interesting to see how the other companies in the competition respond to this announcement, but this lunar space race appears to be well and truly on.

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