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Paperwork could ground some of Google Lunar XPrize's five finalists

Parizad Mangi

Five finalists have reached the final phase of the Google Lunar XPRIZE race to the moon - but so far only one team seems to have secured the necessary government permit to actually fly there. ​

Moon Express, a start-up from Cape Canaveral, Florida, has become the first private entity to receive government approval for a private mission to go beyond traditional Earth orbit and to the moon, which is a requirement of the Outer Space Treaty signed by more than 100 nations.

Besides getting the certificate, there’s still plenty left to do for all the teams before their craft take off. For Moon Express, "the biggest engineering challenge prior to launch is meeting the design requirements for everything that needs to happen after launch”, says Bob Richards, the company’s founder and chief executive. “Landing on the moon has only been accomplished by three superpowers in history, because the engineering challenge is immense and the cost was only within the reach of governments.”

To land, any spacecraft or lander must be designed to survive the dynamics of a rocket launch and then navigate through the high radiation and extreme thermal environments of outer space for a quarter million miles without a navigation system.

The lander has to arrive at a precise location where the moon will be at a precise time in the future, requiring complex orbital dynamics and spacecraft navigation, guidance and control. It has to execute precise rocket engine burns to enter into the correct lunar orbit and descent trajectory, “traveling faster than a bullet” towards the moon, says Richards, then slow down to a virtual stop just as it reaches the lunar surface.

Meanwhile, Team Hakuto, the finalist from Japan, has opted to share a lander with India's finalist Team Indus, switching from its initial lander provider Astrobotic. This has presented the team with the challenge of adapting to new conditions, such as the thermal environment and lander-rover network.
"Moreover, the cost of the lander of Team Indus is more expensive than Astrobotic", added Kyoko Yonezawa, of Team Hakuto. "We are starting a crowdfunding campaign, to raise enough money for our launch."

The international team Synergy Moon is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain the launch licence for its mission.

"We will be working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration next month on licensing for photographing Earth from space", added Kevin Myrick, co-founder of Synergy Moon.

However, the challenge doesn’t end there. To win the race, the teams have to move their moon rover 500m on the lunar surface. The robot then has to send high-definition photos or video back to Earth. The teams have to launch by 31 December 2017.

The competition was announced in 2007, with the aim of giving privately funded engineering teams from around the world the chance to develop a way of getting a robot to our planet's natural satellite. The winner will receive $20 million (£16 million).

Team Profiles:

Moon Express: The team will launch their hopping lander from New Zealand in late 2017, with the aim to create a private business in space.  

SpaceIL: Launching in late 2017, their craft is a ‘hopper’ style robot, which will land on the moon, fly 500m, and touch down. The team wants to educate and inspire more people to get involved in engineering and technology through this project. 

Synergy Moon: The team has partnered with commercial spaceflight launch provider Interorbital Systems to use its Neptune 8 rocket for launch. Synergy Moon plans to launch in the second half of 2017 from an open-ocean location off the California coast. 

Team Indus: The Bangalore start-up will be sending their moon rover ECA, along with science instruments such as cameras from the French national space agency CNES, to race 500m to seize the top prize. The ECA will be launched on 28 December 2017 from Sriharikota, India - with the aim to arrive just in time for India’s Republic Day on 26 January 2018. 

Team Hakuto: The team will be hitching a ride with Team Indus, both robots sharing the same lander to reach the moon. Team Hakuto has managed to land partnerships with Suzuki and a long-term moon-resources exploration plan with the Japanese space agency JAXA. 



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