It’s a mere 239,000 miles or so to the moon. But for the private citizens who must content themselves with looking up at its silvery face instead of walking on its crater-pocked surface, it might as well be five times as far away. Even so, this not-so-far-off orb represents economic and social progress—progress that, until now, has been stymied by the lack of private access to the celestial body. But that could all change, and soon. As Kenneth Chang reports for the New York Times, a group of entrepreneurs could make it to the moon by the end of this year.
It’s not yet clear which of the five finalist teams vying for the Google Lunar XPrize will make it to the moon first. But whoever does will get more than a chance to make history. Thanks to the prize, they’ll also spacewalk away with $20 million.
The prize is part of an attempt to open the moon to private exploration, which has been a long time coming. Only last year did the first-ever commercial flight to the moon get approved in the U.S., and as Tim Fernholz wrote for Quartz at the time, that took an unprecedented inter-agency collaboration and a special ruling. The winning company, Moon Express, is one of the teams vying for the prize. All of the other competitors are from outside of the U.S., and one represents an international team.
Moon Express intends to send a lunar lander to the moon on a small, cost-effective rocket, writes Chang. Israel’s SpaceIL intends to send up a lunar lander, and the international collaboration Synergy Moon wants to send up a rover. Japan’s Hakuto and India’s Team Indus intend to send up two rovers on the same rocket, then compete to capture the prize by fulfilling its other requirements.
No matter which team makes it up first, they’ll all have to travel at least 500 meters, or just over 0.3 miles, and send back photos and videos to win the grand prize. Bonus prizes will also be doled out for things like operating the craft on two separate lunar days, doing a live, heritage-oriented broadcast, detecting water on the moon or documenting the Apollo landing sites. And both the first and second-place winners will have to prove that 90 percent of their mission costs were funded by the public.
With so much attention focused on a potential Mars landing these days, it might seem kind of quixotic to go to the moon. But contest officials insist that it’s worth looking toward our nearest neighbor as both a space training ground and a place for ongoing discovery. Are they right? Until a private company makes it onto the moon, there’s no way to tell. But with the clock now ticking toward the end of 2017, the race to close that 239,000-mile gap just got a lot more interesting.