As China lands on the Moon, is a GLXP team next?

MX-1 unveiling

Moon Express CEO Bob Richards shows off his company’s MX-1 lander during an event in Las Vegas on December 5. (credit: Moon Express)

On Saturday morning (US time), China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of the Moon, making it the first spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon since Luna 24 in August 1976. (Other spacecraft had crash-landed on the Moon since then, primarily orbiters at the end of their mission.) By Sunday the spacecraft will deploy its Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” rover, which will explore the Bay of Rainbows landing site for three months or more.

As I reported earlier this month in The Space Review, the landing is a setback for the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP), which offers $30 million in prizes for the first privately developed spacecraft to land on the Moon, traverse at least 500 meters, and take a set of photos and videos from those locations. When the prize started in September 2007, there was a widely-held belief among many supporters of commercial spaceflight that the next spacecraft to land on the Moon would belong to the winning team. For a time, the prize also included a “government landing penalty,” where the $20-million grand prize would be decreased to $15 million should a government land on the Moon before a GLXP team.

As GLXP teams have struggled to develop their spacecraft, the X PRIZE Foundation restructured the prize to remove that penalty, and unveiled in its place a set of “Milestone Prizes” that will provide near-term awards to teams that demonstrate the development of key subsystems in the next year.

Many of the teams have not made significant progress and appear unlikely to have a vehicle ready to fly before the prize deadline of the end of 2015. A few, though, appear to still be in the game. In The Space Review article, I profiled a couple such teams: Moon Express and Penn State Lunar Lion, who are taking different technical and organizational approaches to winning the prize. A couple of others, Astrobotic Technology and Barcelona Moon Team, have launch contracts in place for their missions, a key “long lead” item needed to be ready to fly by the end of 2015.

And, since that article, Moon Express made a major announcement. On December 5, the company unveiled its MX-1 lunar lander design, which appears to be the “micro lunar lander” the company talked about this summer. The MX-1 is a small spacecraft (“about the size of a large coffee table,” the company says in its announcement) that uses hydrogen peroxide thrusters to land on the lunar surface. Those thrusters also make use of kerosene “as an after burner” to provide additional thrust to escape from Earth orbit. The spacecraft doesn’t appear to make use of landing legs, instead sitting on the surface on a circular base; the announcement is vague about this and other technical details about the spacecraft.

“This is an incredibly, incredibly powerful piece of technology,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said when unveiling a full-size model of the spacecraft during the closing ceremonies of the Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas. The unveiling had a Star Trek theme, with the soundtrack of the original TV series playing as three people wearing Enterprise uniforms removed the top of a faux rock, underneath which was the lander model.

In its press release, Moon Express noted the MX-1 design has applications beyond landing on the Moon, including satellite servicing and space tug uses in Earth orbit. “The MX-1 is not just a lunar lander, it is a spacecraft workhorse with many markets” Richards said in the release. “The MX-1 is the ‘iPhone of space’; a platform capable of supporting many apps including our core plan of exploring the Moon for resources of benefit to humanity.”

Moon Express and the other GLXP teams now have just over 24 months to do what now three countries—the former Soviet Union, the US, and China—have done: land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.

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