The Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize competition may be dead, but the foundation behind the contest still plans to give a cash prize to one of its former competitors — if the team actually lands on the Moon. Today, the X Prize Foundation, which organized the competition, announced it will give a $1 million “Moonshot” award to the Israeli non-profit SpaceIL, if the organization’s lander successfully touches down on the lunar surface.
SpaceIL was originally one of five finalists in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, which ran from 2007 to 2018. The competition aimed to lower the cost of getting to deep space, by challenging teams all over the world to build and launch lunar landers using mostly private funding. The first team that successfully landed on the Moon and explored the surface before the competition’s deadline was set to receive $20 million from Google, while the second place team would receive $5 million. The rest of the cash was reserved for teams that performed special tasks, such as visiting an old Apollo landing site.
The X Prize Foundation originally set the deadline for 2012, but extended the competition a few times until a final deadline was set at March 31st, 2018. Dozens of teams initially entered the competition, with five finalists making it to the last round. But ultimately, none of the teams ever launched before the last deadline. The X Prize Foundation tried to relaunch the competition with a new sponsor in 2018, but was unable to find anyone to back the prize.
However, many of the teams are still striving to reach the Moon, with SpaceIL poised to be the first of the finalists to make it to the lunar surface. The non-profit completed its lander with a budget of $90 million and launched the spacecraft into Earth orbit on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 21st. The lander, named Beresheet has spent the last month and a half in space, slowly stretching its orbit around Earth in order to reach the distance of the Moon. The plan is to put the lander into the Moon’s orbit the first week of April and then attempt a landing on the lunar surface on April 11th.
The fact that SpaceIL kept working toward this mission after the competition ended inspired the X Prize Foundation to offer up a new award, contingent on the team’s success. “When we were informed that this was going to happen with SpaceIL, we were so happy,” Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, vice president of prize operations at X Prize, tells The Verge. “And we went back to the table and said, ‘Okay, what can we do to celebrate this amazing accomplishment?’”
The prize isn’t sponsored by Google this time. The $1 million is coming from the X Prize Foundation’s own cash reserves. Additionally, this money will go to SpaceIL just for landing. The original competition called for teams to move up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) across the lunar surface in order to qualify for the grand prizes. SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander was designed to “hop” across the Moon by reigniting its main engine, though the non-profit has noted that it may not actually do that maneuver now that it’s no longer bound by the rules of the competition.
All the X Prize needs is verification that Beresheet landed, which should come after the lander sends radio communications to stations on the ground. “When the signal is sent back from those ground stations, we’ll know that there’s been a successful landing,” Gonzales-Mowrer says.
It’s possible the X Prize Foundation might award similar moonshot prizes to other former Lunar X Prize teams that reach the Moon. Or this type of award might go to other teams that are taking part of the various X Prize Foundation competitions that are still ongoing. The foundation helps to organize large global competitions, aimed at solving major world problems in the realms of healthcare, climate change, and more. “We’re thinking about potentially doing this for other great accomplishments that we see happening in many different fields that X Prize is involved in,” Gonzales-Mowrer says.