Robotic Race to the Moon Heats Up

By Jeffrey Marlow | March 28, 2016 9:59 am
16 teams aim for the Moon. (Image: Flickr/Kevin Doncaster)

16 teams aim for the Moon. (Image: Flickr/Kevin Doncaster)

Three engineers walk into a bar.

The punchline won’t do any favors for your next stand-up set, but what followed may one day find its place in start-up folk history alongside the Silicon Valley garage. It was 2010, and Israeli engineer Yariv Bash had just posted a bold invitation on his Facebook wall. “I’m going to the Moon – who wants to join me?” Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub took the bait, meeting Bash for a beer. Soon, the three were sketching spacecraft designs on napkins, proposing unusual landers that would hop from site to site across the lunar surface. Emboldened, they signed up to enter the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a competition that offers $30 million in prizes to teams able to land a rover on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and beam high-definition visuals back to Earth. Six years later, the team, re-christened SpaceIL, has 30 full time employees and has booked a ticket on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in late 2017.

Meanwhile, a team of German scientists and engineers was mounting a similar battle against long odds. The Part Time Scientists – a moniker that is no longer accurate given their snowballing momentum – leveraged open-source data and developed a partnership with Audi to build a four-wheeled rover. “They have given us tips on how to drive in rough terrain,” explains electronics lead Karsten Becker, “and convinced us to focus on lighter-weight, bigger wheels.” Designing the lander is proving more challenging, as many essential components don’t exactly come off the shelf. A 16-month wait is not unusual.

As SpaceIL, The Part-Time Scientists, and fourteen other teams work feverishly toward the end-of-2017 deadline, a series of short films is bringing the process to a wider audience. Moon Shot – directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by a line up that includes J.J. Abrams – premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and contains nine vignettes, each several minutes in length. The snapshots are not your standard triumphant documentary fare, reveling in the achievement of a long-held dream. The full story hasn’t been written, of course, but the editorial slant was also a conscious choice to highlight the people behind the missions, to focus on the spirit of exploration rather than its technical, scientific, or financial repercussions.

Chanda Gonzales, the Senior Director of the prize, has corralled and encouraged participating teams for the last several years, and is intimately familiar with the challenges of privatized space exploration. “Sometimes things don’t go as planned,” she explains. “We’ve had to extend the competition a couple of times” due largely to the recession, which brought funding to a halt. But with no clear precedent comes the freedom to chart your own path: “this has never been done before,” Gonzales says, “so there is no rule book to follow.”

The Google Lunar XPRIZE was announced in 2007: 29 teams registered, and 16 continue the effort today. Attrition comes from negative forces (insufficient money or poor initial results), positive developments (commercializable technology leading to a spin-off company), and mergers, as several teams have joined forces after sussing out the competition.

But with just over a year and a half left on the clock, Gonzales is optimistic. Two teams have already gone through the launch contract verification process – a major financial and technical readiness hurdle – and “I have full faith that we will see maybe three or four more teams go through this,” she says.

“The chances of a team getting to the Moon is very, very likely.”


The Extremo Files

The Extremo Files traces the science that is pushing the boundaries of biology, from the deep sea to outer space to the brave new world of synthetic biology.

About Jeffrey Marlow

Jeffrey Marlow is a geobiologist exploring the limits of life, from the role of microbes in global elemental cycles to the possibility of life beyond Earth and the brave new world of synthetic biology. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology and is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Harvard University, where he studies the inner workings of methane-metabolizing organisms.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar