Google Lunar XPRIZE Selects Five Teams to Compete for $6 Million in Milestone Prizes

Los Angeles, CA (February 19, 2014) — The Google Lunar XPRIZE announced today the five international teams selected as finalists for Milestone Prizes, with a total purse of $6 million to be awarded this year. After reviewing 33 total submissions, the nine member independent judging panel selected 11 submissions from the following teams: Astrobotic (US), Moon Express (US), Hakuto (Japan), Part-Time-Scientists (Germany), and Team Indus (India).

The Milestone Prizes were added to recognize the technological achievements and the associated financial hurdles faced by the teams as they vie for the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, a global competition to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon by December 31, 2015..

The three categories of Milestone Prizes are as follows, along with which teams are competing:

  • Landing System Milestone Prize: $1,000,000 per team – based on the hardware and software that enables a soft-landing on the moon (Astrobotic, Moon Express, Team Indus)
  • Mobility Subsystem Milestone Prize: $500,000 per team – based on the mobility system that allows the craft to move 500 meters after landing (Astrobotic, Moon Express, Hakuto, Part-Time-Scientists)
  • Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize: $250,000 per team – based on producing “Mooncasts” consisting of high-quality images and video on the lunar surface (Astrobotic, Moon Express, Part-Time-Scientists, Team Indus)

In order to compete for the Milestone Prizes, teams had to submit documentation to the judging panel, defining the key technical risks they face and how they intend to retire them. Selected teams must now accomplish the milestones outlined in their submissions through testing and mission simulations under the scrutiny of the judges, in order to win the prizes. Teams have until September 2014 to complete the prize requirements and the winners will be announced on an ongoing basis throughout 2014.

“Every strategy presented to us was imaginative, forward-thinking and ambitious, which made it difficult to choose only a handful to proceed to the Accomplishment Round,” said David Swanson, chair of the Google Lunar XPRIZE judging panel. “As there are increasing fiscal constraints threatening the ability of governments to fund exploration, the need to recognize the bold technical achievements of these privately-funded teams is greater than ever.”

Competing for the Milestone Prizes is an optional part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. Teams that chose not to participate in the Milestone Prizes are still eligible to win the Grand or Second Place Prizes. The prize money for the Milestone Prizes will be deducted from any future Grand or Second Place Prize winnings of that team. To accommodate the possibility of teams winning Milestone Prizes and not subsequently going on to win the Grand or Second Place Prize, Google has increased the maximum prize purse to $40 million.

XPRIZE is also considering additional Milestone Prizes for technical achievements after lift-off on the way to the moon, to be announced at a later date. For more details on the Milestone Prizes, please visit

About the Google Lunar XPRIZE:
The $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE is an unprecedented competition to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. To win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the moon’s surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth. For more information, go to

For more information:
Eric Desatnik, / (310) 741-4892

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Heather Gordon, / (310) 552-4123

The Lunar X Prize Heats Up

A few teams have dropped out of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, but many more are preparing for 2015 launch dates to send their landers to the moon.

Two years remain. The Google Lunar X Prize, inaugurated in 2007, challenges private companies to put a lander on the moon, maneuver on the lunar surface, and send back messages to Earth. The contest includes a $30 million prize, but the deed must be done by December 31, 2015. Today the X Prize Foundation announced that five teams are pulling out of the race to the moon. So, with so little time remaining, is any one team on track to win the prize?

There are still 18 teams in the running, and X Prize says that several of them have been making good progress toward the first private moon landing. Earlier this month Moon Express, a private company headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, Calif., unveiled its lunar lander, which will run on solar power and hydrogen peroxide-based fuel. They have already successfully demonstrated their software control system using NASA’s test platform. X Prize says that it can’t share the details of scheduled launches, but half the teams have shared their launch plans for 2015.

And though five teams have dropped out of the running, that doesn’t mean they’ve left the private space industry. In fact, some are still contributing to Lunar X Prize projects. California-based team Phoenicia, one of the last teams to enter the race, decided their efforts were better spent assisting other teams with launching their crafts into space. They’ll be helping their former competitor, the Penn State Lunar Lion Team, which have already reserved space on the payload delivery rack that was initially developed for Phoenicia’s X Prize attempt.

Others might be leaving the moon race, but they are using their tech to take on other projects in the space industry, says Lunar X Prize senior director Alexandra Hall. “I don’t really see this as a downer, actually,” Hall says. “One of the key goals is to stimulate the new space economy. That’s not just about landing on the moon. It’s about all facets: the technology and the supply chain.”

Hall says that another team to drop out of the competition, Team ARCA (which also competed for the Ansari X Prize to build a reusable manned spacecraft), have used their technology development to create a space industry in Romania. “They recently won a contract to test parachutes for the next Mars mission. They’ve become a force to be reckoned with,” she says. ARCA will be working with the European Space Agency to perfect the parachutes for ESA’s ExoMars 2016 mission.

Two other teams are leaving the competition to develop their technology for Earth-based initiatives. Team Selenokhod, based in Moscow, have already adapted their image-processing and navigation systems for use in warehouse-stacking vehicles. And the Baltimore-based Jurban Team withdrew from the race to enter another X Prize challenge: They will try to build a tricorder.

The fact that new technologies applicable on Earth as well as in space have already come out of the race to the moon means the prize competition is beginning to be a success. Many of today’s key technologies came out of NASA research and just found their way into society afterward. X Prize Foundation Founder Peter Diamandis, the winner of PopMech’s 2013 Breakthrough Leadership Award, talked to us earlier this year about how X Prize wants to encourage “intelligent risk-taking” in pursuit of a defined goal like visiting the moon. And even teams that don’t win the prize could stumble upon breakthrough technologies.

The Lunar X Prize will become even more heated in the next few months. For one thing, launch schedules need to be locked down about 18 months ahead of the 2015 prize deadline. And not all the remaining competitors will make it to the end. There were 26 teams still in contention for the Ansari X Prize when it was won—but by the final year only two were making headlines.

“By the time we get to 2015 I don’t think we’ll have 18 teams with launch contracts,” Hall says. “What’s fascinating right now is that it isn’t obvious who will win. There are many permutations and combinations with how this can end up.”


Once We Live On The Moon, We’ll Still Be Able To Eat Local

In 2015, NASA will plant the first moon garden–a tiny greenhouse filled with basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis, a small plant related to cabbage.

“This is fundamental biology,” says Bob Bowman, a research scientist for Lockheed Martin at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Nobody has grown plants on the moon before. For that matter, no one’s done a live science experiment in deep space before. So we’re on the edge here trying to figure out how to do this.”

The seeds will hitch a ride with a commercial spacecraft to save the government money. Since Google is offering $20 million to the first company that can launch a robotic spacecraft to the moon (and successfully send back two “mooncasts” by the end of 2015), NASA plans to send the garden along with whichever company wins.

Because the moon has a lunar day equivalent to 28 Earth days–14 days of continuous sunlight followed by 14 days of continuous darkness–the first lunar garden won’t last very long. “That continuous darkness is devastating because it’s on the order of 150 degrees Fahrenheit below zero,” explains Bowman. “Our little experiment is going to land somewhere around dawn of the lunar daylight period. We only have 14 days before everything freezes rock solid.” They expect the garden will last four to six days, or perhaps stretch to all 14 days if they’re very lucky.

After the spacecraft’s lander makes it to the surface of the moon and sets up communications with Earth, the scientists can trigger a small reservoir of water to wet the seeds inside a small, sealed growth chamber. Filter paper inside the container provides nutrients, and the air sealed inside should keep the seeds alive as the natural sunlight on the moon triggers growth.

As the experiment goes along, NASA is inviting students to help them run controls back on Earth. Bowman says: “We envision having the pictures available in more or less real time, so students can tune in and see how the plants are doing today. Even if we fail, that’s a very valuable learning experience. It draws young people not just to watch, but actually to participate, and that’s the key element of it right there. They’re doing lunar research just like we are.”

Though the purpose of the moon garden is focused on the actual moon–to understand what lunar life might be possible, as a first step in perhaps sending people to live on the moon someday–Bowman says the results might also but useful for agriculture on Earth. Plants encounter stresses like drought and heat here on Earth, but on the moon, they’ll experience conditions that no living organism has ever encountered. “We’re looking at the fundamental aspects that control how plants grow,” Bowman says.

Mostly, Bowman is excited about the possibility to do something that’s never been done before and share it with students. “It’s cool to grow plants on the moon, what can I say,” he says. “I’m an old educator from a long time ago, and if you ask me why do I want to do this, I want to grow plants on the moon, but I also cherish the opportunity to hopefully encourage young minds to think about science.”

As China goes to the Moon, @xprize teams stay in the race

When the X PRIZE Foundation announced in September 2007 the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP), there was considerable optimism at the time that the winner, whoever that might be, would be the next entity to soft-land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon (see “Google’s moonshot”, The Space Review, September 17, 2007). The private sector seemed to be making great advances in spaceflight, as the earlier Ansari X PRIZE for suborbital spaceflight demonstrated, while national space agencies were proceeding much more slowly. Other than NASA’s own Vision for Space Exploration, which likely would have included a robotic lander as a precursor to a human lunar landing planned for no later than 2020, the most promising country was China. Yet, at the time the prize was announced, China was still a month away from launching its first lunar mission, the Chang’e-1 orbiter.

“The decision was made that the government landing penalty no longer served any useful purpose and it was removed,” Hall wrote of the provision that would have cut $5 million from the prize.

That optimism—or, perhaps in retrospect, irrational exuberance—has now all but disappeared. Barring a catastrophe in the next two weeks, China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft will land on the Moon later this month, most likely on December 14. That spacecraft carries a rover, officially named “Yutu” last week; the technical capabilities of the rover are not well known outside China, but it may well have the ability to go more than 500 meters from the lander, one of the key requirements of the prize.

Chang’e-3, of course, can’t win the prize: government organizations aren’t eligible. Nonetheless, the fact that, six years after the prize’s introduction, the first spacecraft that (at least in principle) could technically meet the prize’s requirements was built by a government space agency with access to significant national resources speaks to the difficulty of the challenge that the prize organizers may have greatly underestimated. But, even as the prize rules continue to be tweaked, a few teams remain active with the hope of following in the rover tracks of Chang’e-3 in the next couple of years.

Changing prize rules

When the X PRIZE Foundation announced the GLXP in 2007, one key aspect of the competition was the prize structure. The competition featured a first prize of $20 million, but only if a team won the competition by the end of 2012. Under the original rules, if no team won by the end of 2012, the prize decreased to $15 million through the end of 2014, at which time the prize expired. The original rules also included a $5-million second prize, to encourage teams to continue even after a team claimed the first prize (a flaw in the earlier Ansari X PRIZE), and assorted $1 million bonus prizes, bringing the total prize purse to $30 million.

The foundation changed the rules a few years ago, when it was clear that a winner by 2012, or even 2014, was unlikely. The $20-million grand prize would remain in place through 2015, but would be decremented to $15 million if a government mission got to the lunar surface first: an effort to provide a similar degree of schedule pressure as China’s lunar plans became clearer (see “The Google Lunar X PRIZE at five: can it still be won?”, The Space Review, October 1, 2012). Even that, though, failed to provide the impetus needed to get a private mission off the ground.

Last month, the X PRIZE Foundation announced another change in the prize structure for the GLXP. The “government landing penalty” that had been previously added is no longer in place, just weeks before the Chang’e-3 mission would have triggered it. “The decision was made that the government landing penalty no longer served any useful purpose and it was removed,” wrote Alex Hall, senior director of the GLXP, in a November 13 blog post.

Instead, the GLXP has added a series of “Milestone Prizes” designed to be awarded before any spacecraft is ready to go to the Moon. Up to $6 million of the overall prize purse will be awarded by the end of next September to teams that demonstrate certain developmental benchmarks. “These benchmarks require a showing (via actual testing and analysis) of robust hardware and software that will combat key technical risks in the areas of imaging, mobility and lander systems—all three being necessary to achieve a successful Google Lunar XPRIZE mission,” Hall wrote in a separate blog post last month.

Last year, Hall said that 2012 and 2013 would be “shakeup years” for the teams competing. And there has been a shakeout of sorts: teams have merged or dropped out of the competition, with the X PRIZE Foundation now currently counting only 22 active teams, down from a peak of about 30.

Under the revised prize structure, there will be up to four $250,000 prizes for teams that demonstrate imaging systems, up to four $500,000 prizes for mobility system demonstrations, and up to three $1-million prizes for landing systems. The prizes would be deducted from the first- or second-place prizes any of the teams won for achieving the overall goals of the competition.

The restructured prizes, Hall explained, are designed to help teams deal with the near-term challenges—particularly in funding—of developing lunar landers. “Recognizing and rewarding these milestones will not only help the competing teams by allowing them to access financing at a critical point in their mission timeline, but it will also raise public excitement and support for the teams,” she wrote.

Teams press ahead

That restructuring may address one of the criticisms that some teams had about the competition: that the foundation, or Google itself, was not doing enough to help teams in what turned out to be a more difficult than expected environment (see “Still eyeing the lunar prize”, The Space Review, August 8, 2011). Hall, in her blog posts, acknowledged that the 2008 financial crisis and resulting deep recession made it more difficult for teams to raise money, while NASA’s own space exploration policy shift away from the Moon in 2010 made it less likely the space agency would be a major customer, in terms of buying data or payload space, on these commercial landers.

Last year, Hall said that 2012 and 2013 would be “shakeup years” for the teams competing: if teams were serious about mounting a lunar lander mission by the end of 2015, they needed to make serious progress in those two years, including building hardware and making launch arrangements, in order to be ready to fly no later than 2015. And there has been a shakeout of sorts: teams have merged or dropped out of the competition, with the X PRIZE Foundationnow currently counting only 22 active teams, down from a peak of about 30. And many of those teams still officially active have made little public progress that would suggest that they would be ready to fly a lunar lander before the prize expires in 25 months.

A few teams, though, are still serious about pursuing the prize. Last week, one of those teams, Moon Express, carried out a test of its flight software using Mighty Eagle, a lunar lander testbed developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The Moon Express software controlled Mighty Eagle as the vehicle took off using its hydrogen peroxide engine and flew to an altitude of three meters, hovering there for several seconds before landing.

“Our first goal as a company is just to land on the Moon,” Richards said of the first Moon Express mission, which could allow the company to claim the prize.

“Our collaboration with NASA has been exceptionally helpful, and our friends at Marshall Space Flight Center shared our enthusiasm today for an important step forward in our commercial lunar plans,” wrote Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, in a blog post after the flight. That test, and earlier tethered tests of the vehicle using the company’s software, took place under a reimbursable Space Act Agreement, with Moon Express paying for the costs of the tests.

Richards has made it clear that Moon Express, while competing for the prize, has a business model that looks beyond simply winning the GLXP. In its long-term plans, the 2015 mission that would allow it to win the prize is just an initial technology demonstration mission. “Our first goal as a company is just to land on the Moon,” he said in a speech at the AIAA Space 2013 conference in San Diego in September. “That would be a great success for us. If we can actually prove some of our operations, serve some of our customers like Google, who want to see some video and some picture brought back, serve some of our other customers who want to send payloads to the Moon during a two-week first mission, that is even better.”

That demo mission would be followed by a mission for the International Lunar Observatory Association, who wants to fly a telescope to the south pole of the Moon that could be operated by the public. The third mission, he said, would be the “Holy Grail” of the company: a sample return mission that would fly between 2018 and 2020. “Everything that we’re doing as a company is building up this capability of being able to bring resources back,” Richards said. That mission, he said, would bring back about a kilogram of lunar materials, something he said would be both profitable and inspiration, and also establish legal precedents for the future utilization of lunar resources.

Moon Express, unlike most other GLXP teams, does have some wealthy backers, including entrepreneurs Naveen Jain and Barney Pell, who serve as the company’s chairman and vice-chairman, respectively. “We’ve been very fortunate at Moon Express to have great backing from our investors,” Richards said at Space 2013. “All the money isn’t in the bank; it never was and it was never intended to be. But it will be, provided the company continues to perform and meets its technical milestones.”

Moon Express is also raising money from others. Last month, Klee Irwin, a health food entrepreneur, announced he had made a “six-figure” investment in Moon Express. “I invested less for financial payoff and more to fund space science and assist in the expansion of Earth-based life and technology into the vast regions beyond Earth,” he said in a press release about the investment.

Moon Express’s emphasis on commercial missions beyond the GLXP is a very different focus than another team that’s made progress in recent months, the Penn State Lunar Lion Team. As the name suggests, the team is based at Penn State University (whose mascot is the Nittany Lion, hence the “Lunar Lion” name) and its Applied Research Laboratory, featuring a mix of lab engineers, university faculty, and students.

“I don’t see who’s going to win this if we don’t, given the position we’re in right now,” said Penn State Lunar Lion team leader Michael Paul.

Although a university-based team might seem to be at a disadvantage to commercial teams, the Lunar Lion team has achieved several milestones in recent months. In September, it announced a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) to test methane/liquid oxygen rocket engines developed at JSC that could be used for the Lunar Lion lander. The small engines—each generates about 90 newtons (20 pounds-force) of thrust—were designed for roll control, but team leader Michael Paul said in a September interview a cluster of them could serve as the descent engine for their lander.

Last month, the team announced it had paid a “launch reservation fee” for its mission. The team is working with Team Phoenicia, a company that originally signed up for the GLXP but dropped out the competition to focus instead on arranging secondary payload opportunities. Lunar Lion paid a $100,000 fee, although the total cost—and on which launch they would fly on—weren’t disclosed.

The university-based nature of Lunar Lion means different funding models, and also a different degree of transparency about those financing efforts, than commercial teams. Paul, speaking to university trustees last month, said they have raised more than one third of the estimated $60-million cost of the mission. Like many other, albeit more terrestrial, university projects, Lunar Lion is relying on donors, in the form of corporate sponsors and individual donors. Penn State itself is providing $8 million.

Paul, in a September interview, said that in addition to its pursuit of large individual and corporate donors, the team was considering a crowdfunding campaign to raise small amounts of money from larger numbers of people, and to connect with a broader audience as well. He acknowledged, though, there was no certainty they would have all the funding in hand in time to win the prize. “Fundraising takes a long time, and there’s always the risk that the end of 2015, the end of the prize, is going to come and go we’re not done,” he said.

However, he said the university is taking a big-picture view of the Lunar Lion effort, regardless of their ability to win the GLXP. “The university sees the value in what we’re doing so far beyond a $20-million endowment, which is what the prize would become when we win it,” he said. “The university sees the value in a research center at Penn State that is for leadership in space exploration, and that’s what we’re building at Penn State through this effort.”

Asked what he thought were the odds of winning the GLXP, Paul said it was difficult to measure their probability. “We’ve done everything that we can strategically to align ourselves with the best aerospace companies in the world, people of significant means, and the Penn State community at large, to make this a reality,” he said. “But I don’t see who’s going to win this if we don’t, given the position we’re in right now.”

It is, of course, possible that no one will win the prize purse before it finally expires at the end of 2015 (unless Google and the X PRIZE Foundation change the rules again.) But, if it stimulates companies like Moon Express and university labs like Lunar Lion, it still might be a success in the long run regardless of whom if anyone, gets that $20-million check.

Jeff Foust ( is the editor and publisher of The Space Review. He also operates the web site and the Space Politics and NewSpace Journalweblogs. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not represent the official positions of any organization or company, including the Futron Corporation, the author’s employer.

Recognizing Giant Leaps: Google Lunar XPRIZE Establishes Milestone Prizes (Op-Ed)

Alexandra Hall, senior director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, contributed this article to’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Back in 2007, building upon the successes of the Ansari XPRIZE for suborbital spaceflight and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, XPRIZE and Google launched the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, the largest incentivized competition to date. The concept was easy to explain: land on the moon, move 500 meters and send back video, images and data. The prize requirements were conceived to demonstrate the minimum useful capability a spacecraft would need for future uses in space exploration and scientific research.

Thirty teams signed up for this audacious challenge by the close of registration in 2010 — three times as many as the initial concept study had suggested. Going back to the moon had clearly struck a chord!

This week, XPRIZE and Google announced a series of Milestone Prizes available to competing teams. The reason for introducing these prizes deserves a little background.

Over the past decade, XPRIZE has successfully launched and awarded a number of competitions, learning a great deal about what makes for optimum prize design. We’ve learned that success is more likely if we continue to keep our eye on the entire ecosystem surrounding a prize, and when we address any significant challenges to that ecosystem that may arise.

Given the large investment needed to send a robot to the moon, two elements of the Google Lunar XPRIZE ecosystem are critical: potential customers for the technology developed by teams, and investors to help create the businesses to leverage those markets. In both of these areas, much has changed since the Google Lunar XPRIZE was launched. The global economic downturn has reduced an already small pool of investors who are willing to take risks on pioneering new markets. This same downturn has also stagnated or reduced the budgets that governments — usually an early future customer — are willing to spend in space exploration (of note, NASA has changed its focus from going back to the moon to exploring asteroids ).

Two years ago, XPRIZE began a dialogue with teams to better understand the challenges that they were facing and to determine what steps we might take to better nurture and support this prize ecosystem. As a result, we determined that we needed to find a way to recognize and support the teams that were making substantial technical progress toward the requirements of the competition.

Hence the newly announced Milestone Prizes.

Within the next year, there are certain developmental milestones for flight-ready hardware that teams must pass in order to meet the mission requirements and be ready to launch by the deadline of Dec. 31, 2015.

Recognizing and rewarding these milestones will not only help the competing teams by allowing them to access financing at a critical point in their mission timeline, but it will also raise public excitement and support for the teams.

The Milestone Prizes are for demonstrating (via actual testing and analysis) robust hardware and software to combat key technical risks in the areas of imaging, mobility and lander systems — all three being necessary to achieve a successful Google Lunar XPRIZE mission. Teams will submit their proposals to our judging panel, which will select up to four proposals to monitor in each of the imaging and mobility subsystems, and three proposals for the lander system, for a total of 11 proposals. A team may have proposals selected in more than one area.

Provided the team successfully accomplishes the tasks described in their selected proposal in the timeframe agreed, they will win a Milestone Prize. The amounts are $250,000 for the Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize (for up to 4 teams), $500,000 for the Mobility Subsystem Milestone Prize (for up to 4 teams), and $1 million for the Lander System Milestone Prize (for up to 3 teams), for a total purse of $6 million. The Milestone Prizes can be won through the end of September 2014.

With the introduction of these prizes, 2014 is looking to be a very exciting year for the Google Lunar XPRIZE with critical hardware and software testing and many great opportunities to recognize our teams and their significant achievements. While we cannot fix the global economic downturn, we can at least highlight the ways in which our teams are bringing us closer to a new era of private lunar exploration, taking us back to the moon, for good.

Dramatic Changes to Google Lunar X Prize Cash Prizes Under Consideration

The plans laid out in this draft document embody a radical departure from the current approach to awarding prizes i.e. one winner, one big prize with several smaller runner-up prizes. Now, multiple teams will be able to get even smaller cash prizes for efforts already completed or near completion – but far short of actually sending a mission to land on the Moon.

If approved, this approach would help inject some much needed cash into the coffers of several competitors. No word yet on whether this plan will be formally adopted or when it will be adopted but a quick turn around time for comments suggests that there is an interest in getting these new rules in place soon.

Editor’s note: This document has been widely circulated among several hundred people inside and outside of the Google Lunar X Prize community for several weeks. No markings were placed on this document to note that it is either confidential or proprietary. Indeed, the cover memo encouraged its wider distribution for review and comment.

Google Lunar X Prize Milestone Prizes Guidelines Draft v0.3 July 10, 2013

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1 Overview

1.1 Scope

This guidelines document describes a number of milestone prizes that have been established within the framework of the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP). It will form the basis for a requirements document for the Milestone Prizes upon review and decision by the GLXP Judging Panel.

1.2 Objectives

The objectives of the Milestone Prizes are the following:

- Helping teams get past difficult technical milestones on their way to winning the GLXP Grand and Second Place prizes

- Strengthening teams’ business plans by bringing forward some of the prize money for teams that retire key risks

- Provide major public relations opportunities to strengthen awareness of the team and Prize as a whole

The Milestone Prizes have been defined to reward teams for verifiable technical steps, most of which they would anyway need to accomplish whilst preparing or executing their GLXP missions, thus requiring minimal additional work on the part of the teams.

The subsystem designs developed and verified for the Terrestrial Milestone Prizes (see below) are also expected to be useful for future space missions after the GLXP.

1.3 Types of Milestone Prizes

The following Milestone Prizes are available:

- Camera Milestone Prize – $750,000 per team for up to 4 teams

- Mobility Milestone Prize – $750,000 per team for up to 4 teams

- Launch Milestone Prize – $7,000,000 purse split (using a % of launch cost formula with a cap) between teams making the earliest successful launches

- Lunar Arrival Milestone Prize – $1,000,000 for first team to reach a specified distance from the moon

The first two prizes are for technical verification of the respective subsystems (camera or mobility) needed to complete the GLXP mission requirements. These two types of Milestone Prizes will be available prior to launch of the team’s GLXP mission and shall be collectively referred to as the “Terrestrial Milestone Prizes”. There is no obligation to award a specific number of Terrestrial Milestone Prizes in either category (camera or mobility).

The latter two prizes shall be collectively referred to as the “In-Space Milestone Prizes”. The Camera Milestone Prize also includes a complete simulation of the GLXP Mooncasts (both “Arrival” and “Mission Complete”) in addition to the technical verification of the camera system’s design.

1.4 Milestone Prizes Schedule and Validity

The Terrestrial Milestone Prizes will consist of two rounds as follows:

- Terrestrial Milestone Definition Round: August 1st – December 31st, 2013

- Terrestrial Milestone Accomplishment Round: January 1st – June 30th, 2014

Extension of the Milestone Definition Round or Milestone Accomplishment Round is at the discretion of the Judging Panel. The In-Space Milestone Prizes will be available during any GLXP mission that is on track for completion by the end of December 2015 (or “Termination Date”).

1.5 Who Can Participate?

The Milestone Prizes are open to all registered and eligible GLXP teams. Refer to MTA Section 3.2 for more information about eligibility.

Each registered and eligible GLXP team can compete in one or both of the Terrestrial Milestone Prizes – Camera and Mobility.

All teams become automatically eligible for the In-Space Milestone Prizes upon XPRIZE’s acceptance of the corresponding team’s Notification of Launch Attempt.

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Google Lunar X Prize Proposing New Cash Prizes to Help Struggling Teams

Teams struggling to raise money to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize may get an influx of cash from proposed new prizes worth a combined $14 million.

The Lunar X Prize, established in 2007, offers $20 million to the first private team to land a robot on the moon, have it travel 500 meters, and send pictures and video. They have until 2015 to do this, and the prize drops to $15 million if a government entity reaches the moon first, something China expects to do later this year. There also is a $5 million second-place prize. Google is putting up the money, and the competition is organized by the X Prize foundation, which previously held a contest to produce a private suborbital rocket for tourism that was won by SpaceShipOne.

Alas, things aren’t going as well as the X-Prize folks had originally hoped, so they’re considering offering additional prizes. This could include $750,000 each for as many as four teams that present completed designs, power consumption plans, navigation, hardware, and operational details on how they’ll complete the mission. A similar prize could be awarded to as many as four teams that complete designs for a camera subsystem and create a video with realistic mockups or simulations showing their probe’s lunar mission.

But wait. There’s more. The new prizes could include a $7 million purse divvied up among the first teams to successfully launch. And one last suggestion is to pay $1 million to the first team to get within 500 kilometers of the lunar surface.

draft document with the proposed changes was published online Wednesday by Parabolic Arc, a website devoted to commercial space news. The document notes the new rewards include things that teams “would anyway need to accomplish whilst preparing or executing their GLXP missions.”

According the NASA Watch, which also keeps tabs on commercial space activity, the draft proposalhas been circulating for weeks inside and outside the GLXP community. X Prize spokesman Eric Desatnik told WIRED the document is still in draft form and the foundation is exploring a range of ideas for augmenting the prize.

This would not be the first time that competition rules have been changed. The original plan was to award a winner in 2012, but that date was pushed back when teams didn’t show enough progress. There has once again been skepticism that any team could actually win the prize, especially with the new deadline to secure a rocket launch swiftly approaching. Though 2015 is a ways away, launches typically are scheduled two years in advance, meaning any team without a secured place on a rocket by the end of this year is probably out of luck.

NASA Watch’s Marc Boucher suggested the changes, if implemented, “could energize a competition which seemingly has stalled.”

There are around 23 teams left in the competition. Though many have secured funding, Boucher notes that none of the teams has raised all the money needed to launch and land a robot. Many of the smallest teams have struggled to get even a fraction of what they need. The cost of such a mission has been estimated to cost between $60 and $100 million.

Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, one of the teams competing in the Lunar X Prize, welcomed the proposed changes.

“It’s a long way to the moon, and the Google Lunar X Prize is largest X Prize challenge of all time, so providing some prize incentives for early milestones is helpful to the competitors,” he wrote in an email.

Challenges unmet: Unclaimed #prizes in #science and technology

This month, after more than 30 years of waiting, a team of engineers finally claimed the Sikorsky Prize. The challenge was to build a human-powered helicopter, a goal that’s been called impossible since Da Vinci scribbled out a crude drawing of the goal hundreds of years ago.  The winners collected a purse worth a quarter of a million dollars, and set a new standard for light-weight aeronautical engineering. Would the goal have ever been reached without that prize on the table?

Forget the money involved. Science prizes have power because they engage the competitive spirit, turning previously unachievable goalsinto posts in a race. We move toward these goals by steps, competitors often becoming co-conspirators who build off each other’s innovations. Prizes like this have solved some of the oldest problems in mathematics, put humans into space with reusable spacecraft, and helped found the nascent civilian space flight industry. However, there are plenty of prizes still out there, driving innovation and inspiring hard work. Here is a selection of science challenges still waiting to be conquered.

prize kremer

Marathon Kremer Prize – £50,000

Since we began by talking about the Sikorsky prize, which challenged inventors to create a human-powered helicopter, let’s begin this list with a similar challenge: a human-powered plane. The Kremer Prize, marathon edition, asks engineers to create a human-powered aircraft that can travel roughly 42 kilometers (26 miles, or a full marathon) while weaving a figure-eight around two posts.

The course must be completed in under an hour and the aircraft must remain at least five meters above ground for the entire trip. Imagine sailing over your fellow commuters on the way to work — despite a threshold of just 26 miles per hour, the b-line efficiency a Kremer prize winner would allow might get you there faster, regardless.

prize night rover

Night rover challenge – $1.5 million

This challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenge series, and it’s not hard to imagine why a space agency would be willing to shell out for the technology. Entrants must create a solar-powered robot that can store enough solar energy during the day to continue powering the robot through the night.

This is an especially promising idea for the exploration of Mars and of Earth’s moon, since neither have a thick atmosphere to block solar radiation. This would also allow longer excursions into the fabled dark side of the moon. And, of course, any great improvement in solar cell and energy storage efficiency would also have immediate applications here at home.

prize lunar

Lunar X-Prize – $20 million

This Google-sponsored version of the X-Prize puts up the largest purse in X-Prize history. The Lunar Challenge essentially looks to crowd-source the design, creation, launch, and operation of rovers. The rules are quite specific: the winning robot must land on the lunar surface and move no less than 500 meters to simulate exploration, then successfully transmit high-definition video and imagery back to Earth.

Of course, the hope is that it will be able to travel much further than 500 meters, but that threshold for a first success might make the project more achievable in the short time-frame NASA is pushing for. Interestingly, speed is such a priority that the $20 million grand-prize will reduce to $15 million upon the next successful government-funded mission to explore the lunar surface.

prizes nnn

The N-Prize – £9,999.99

Despite a frankly obnoxious obsession with nines, this is one of the most interesting challenges on the list. The ‘N’ in the title refers to nano-satellite, and challenges teams to put a satellite weighing between 9.99 and 19.99 grams into space. The satellite must complete at least nine Earth orbits to win. Most interestingly, the whole project must cost less then £9,999.99 (US$15,315) making it the most budget-conscious entry on the list.

Any launch method is acceptable, from conventional rockets to slingshots, but the final mass must obtain an orbit stable enough to round the Earth 9 times. The satellite must only be technically a satellite, meaning that all it has to do is achieve orbit; getting a stone to do it would count. The launch mechanism is the main focus of this challenge, and the organizers will leave it to a later generation to figure out how to do something useful with a 10 gram orbiter.

prize tricorder

Tricorder X-Prize – $10 million

Being a doctor on Star Trek looks pretty easy. In that future, you simply wave your magic diagnosis wand, and out pops the answer to virtually any answer you can to ask. The X-Prize foundation is handling Qualcomm’s new Tricorder challenge, which tasks engineers with inventing a diagnosis device with very similar properties.

It will be able to capture key “health metrics” like blood pressure, diagnose a set of 15 diseases, extract images of internal structures, and do it all totally noninvasively. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the weight restriction, which is set at 5 measly pounds. This is a tool that’s meant to be used in the home for accurate self-diagnosis. No more running to the emergency room to see if those gas pains are actually an appendix that’s about to burst!

Virgin Earth Challenge – $25 million

For many years, this was the largest science prize in history. With a former Vice President of the United States and a famous rich-guy at the helm, it could afford to put up a big purse, but the goal is hefty enough to justify the pot: figure out how to (hopefully) save the world.

If you think global climate change could have apocalyptic effects, you’ll be happy to know that entrants to the Virgin Earth challenge are tasked with figuring out how to permanently remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. Some have tried to achieve this with carbon capturing trees, others with air filters, and still others with net-negative emissions power plants. There’s no telling who will win, but the prize has led to some very promising innovations.

prize peta

PETA’s In-Vitro Meat Challenge – $1 million

Would you eat test tube meat? Of all groups, PETA hopes you would. In an effort to make slaughterhouses obsolete, the animal rights activists have put up a million dollars in the hopes of motivating researchers to invent store-ready, lab grown chicken meat.

The big problem with growing meat has always been texture; we can get animal cells to grow in a culture, but getting them to form a juicy, delicious slab or breast or thigh meat has always been tough. It’s probably the best idea the group has ever had, moving toward replacing meat, rather than erasing it. While I eat meat without compunction, I would absolutely get the vast majority of my meat lab-grown, if the taste and nutrition were comparable. Not to mention that, with sophisticated enough growing techniques, there would be nothing inherently more expensive about growing a cut of Kobe-marbled goodness than a tough rump-steak.

For reasons of difficulty, the challenge is confined to chicken, but a breakthrough there would almost certainly lead to rapid development of even more types of test tube meat.

prize genomics

Archon Genomics X-Prize – $10 million

Yet another competition administered by the X-Prize foundation, this one takes an age-old problem and puts it to the crowd: sequence DNA better, faster, cheaper. In this case, the goal is 100 whole genomes sequenced rapidly, and with an unprecedented level of fidelity.

The 100 genomes in questions will actually be donated by the “100 over 100,” a group of centenarians who presumably carry some disease-resistant genes, though that’s just a side-point in the larger goal of improving sequencing technology.

Interestingly, this is one area where the market for genomics technology may outstrip the prize itself; despite the $10 million purse, there have been suggestions that potentially winning technologies are being held back for release via the conventional market. Unlike putting a rover on the moon, there are enough money-making opportunities in genomics to motivate research on their own. Why go for the $10 million when you can patent, and potentially make billions?

prize n-prize

Sample Return Robot – $1.5 million

NASA has a problem: they can control their space-bots very well, but only when they can control them at all. There are plenty of complicating factors that muck with the ability to directly control every action of a rover, especially as we send them further and further afield. This challenge is to create an autonomous robot that can find, collect, and return scientific samples within a given time limit.

Interestingly, the challenge has already been run twice, but nobody has made it past Phase 1, the initial find and retrieve stage. Phase 2 is where the real money is, and consists of  a points-based system with rewards up to $1.5 million dollars. Points are doled out based on the difficulty rating of the samples collected, and how many can be returned within a single 2-hour period.

This is a very salient topic of research, considering NASA’s ambitions to send a life-finding rover to Mars within the next few years.

prize randi

James Randi Paranormal Challenge – $1 million

This one really takes the concept of a “challenge” seriously. Rather than being an incitement to make progress, this is simply James Randi, magician turned professional debunker, making a point. A million dollars is up for grabs for anyone who can demonstrate actual paranormal abilities under laboratory conditions. This would include everything from water dousing to aura reading, prediction of the future to remote sight.

Many have tried, but none have succeeded. Several high-profile psychics and mediums have been challenged to take part, and accepted, but later backed out for a variety of reasons. Thanks to smart investing, the challenge account is now actually sitting at $1.3 million — how many psychics can boast that kind of return on investment?

These prizes all have one thing in common: they set incredibly lofty goals, goals which gall the creative human spirit into action. Was the world made all that much better by having a human-powered helicopter? Probably not. However, the engineering advances made in pursuit of that goal can be generalized, as can the method of inspiring them. The challenge model will persist for some time to come, and with 3D printing and other technologies bringing the cost of entry ever lower, it could be an even more important strategy, going forward.

Spinning for the prize

Five years ago, one of the then-active Google Lunar X PRIZE teams quietly signed off, withdrew from the competition, and ceased operations. At the time, it was arguably considered the team to beat in the quest for the prize. This article summarizes that team’s story and highlights a novel advancement in lander architecture derived from this short-lived yet very effective effort.

A long wait

This story starts fifty years ago at Hughes Aircraft Company in Southern California (Culver City), where Dr. Harold A. Rosen, a 37-year-old experienced and clever electrical engineer and radar expert, was leading a small team of engineers putting together what became the first successful series of geosynchronous communications satellites, Syncom. A few years prior, Rosen floated the idea to Hughes management of designing and launching a small, simple spinning satellite to GEO as part of the US response to the USSR’s 1957 Sputniklaunch. This project would also serve as a kick-start toward the vision of global GEO satellite connectivity first articulated by Arthur C. Clarke in his seminal 1945 Wireless World article.

Rosen and Hudspeth
Harold Rosen (at right) with Hughes colleague Tom Hudspeth displaying a full-scale model of their proposed geostationary satellite on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower during the 1961 Paris Air Show. Local media claimed that “this is the highest that satellite will ever get.” (credit: Boeing Satellite Systems)

Syncom 1 was launched in February of 1963 and achieved the desired orbit, but suffered an immediate electrical failure. Five months later, Syncom 2 was successfully launched and began operating nominally. Syncom 3 repeated the achievement a year later.1

“That design was so big and clunky, and so expensive,” Rosen said of Surveyor. “I knew back then that there was a much more elegant and cost-effective way to land.”

During 1962–1963, while Rosen and his team were immersed in their Syncom work, Hughes was bidding to be the prime contractor for NASA’s planned series of robotic lunar landers, Surveyor. The Caltech/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory had already developed a notional design for the lander and was looking to the emergent US space industry to complete the detailed design and then build the spacecraft.

Rosen was asked to peer review his firm’s proposal, and came away unimpressed. “That design was so big and clunky, and so expensive,” he recounted some 45 years later. “I knew back then that there was a much more elegant and cost-effective way to land.”

But at Hughes, Rosen never got a chance to try out his lander concept. He urged his management to counter-propose to JPL an alternative lander concept, which he was ultimately allowed to do. He prepared a proposal and pitched it to JPL, but got a lackluster response from those managing the Surveyor program. So Rosen let it slide and focused onSyncom—and other things.

Buoyed by his credibility earned from the Syncom successes, Rosen stayed at Hughes for 30 more years, leading and growing an innovative spacecraft systems team which, by the mid-1980s, dominated the global commercial communications satellite industry. Along the way, as VP and CTO of Hughes’ Space and Communications Group, Rosen became legendary as “father of the geostationary communications satellite,” as a technical innovator with more than 75 patents, and recipient of most major global accolades in the space and technology arenas, including the US National Medal of Technology.2

After retiring from Hughes (now Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo) in his 60s, Rosen started Rosen Motors with his accomplished brother Ben Rosen (of Compaq Computer and venture-capital fame), which by the late 1990s had successfully road tested the first gas turbine-powered car with flywheel-augmented drive train and regenerative braking system. After this venture, well into his 70s and still very active mentally and physically, Rosen continued strategic consulting with Boeing Satellite Systems while noodling alternative energy concepts in his spare time.

Entering the competition

With much fanfare, the $30-million Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) was announced in downtown Los Angeles in September, 2007 (see “Google’s moonshot”, The Space Review, September 17, 2007). Team Odyssey Moon, formed and led by Bob Richards, a long-time collaborator of X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, concurrently announced that it was going to compete for the prize.3

Rosen’s wife, Deborah Castleman, also an experienced space systems engineer/manager, brought the GLXP to Rosen’s attention, now in his early 80s and enjoying semi-retirement in Santa Monica. Still energetic and sharp as a whip, he weighed in: “Finally, I get to try out my lander idea!”

One of Rosen’s favorite activities while enjoying semi-retirement in Santa Monica. He started his Google Lunar X PRIZE team at age 82. (credit: Ning Ridenoure)

Rosen and Castleman both enjoyed stellar space-technology track records over decades, were well-connected, and had a loyal following, especially in Southern California. They quickly assessed the GLXP competition rules and formed a small technical team with a handful of trusted associates (including Rosen’s son and grandson) to flesh out how Rosen’s lander concept might apply to the competition.

After a series of ad hoc meetings and phone calls, they registered the team into the competition as a stealth team (known only to the X PRIZE Foundation): the Santa Monica Selene Group. Rosen was named Team Leader and Castleman Associate Team leader.

In a later blog posting at the team’s GLXP website4, Castleman summarized the overarching goal of the team:

“[We] registered our team to compete for the Google Lunar X PRIZE to demonstrate that a low-cost space mission to the Moon could be accomplished and could lead to lowering the cost of some future robotic missions to planetary moons. Plus, we intended to have fun!”

original team
Rosen’s original GLXP team in when first registered as the Santa Monica Selene Group. Left to right: Max Johnson, Dorian Challoner, Susan Sloan, John Smay, Deborah Castleman Harold Rosen, Brian Bliss, Robert Rosen, Josh Rosen. Everyone except the two high school students (one on each end) were current or past employees at Hughes Space & Communications. (credit: Deborah Castleman, December 2007)
Individually, all of the technical team had worked from years to decades at Hughes Space and Communications, and combined their names appear on 130 space-related patents. This small group had over 400 years of space industry experience.

Returning compelling video from the landing and surface operations mission phases—“Mooncasts” in GLXP parlance—is a key requirement for winning the prize. As the world-leading supplier of rugged video systems for use on board rockets and spacecraft, the firm I was leading at that time, Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, with its RocketCam product family, got peppered with calls from GLXP teams starting the day after the prize announcement.

Rather than commit to any particular team or teams, I decided to register Ecliptic as a stealth team as well, figuring that eventually we’d be sitting at the table with all teams and could pick our own winners to partner with. I submitted our registration just before the deadline at the end of 2007.

What I didn’t know at that time was that for his team entry Rosen had recently recruited a former Hughes engineer/manager to be his Project Manager: Ron Symmes. Symmes had spent much of his career at Hughes (and then Boeing), ultimately retiring as an Executive VP in charge of their billion-dollar-per-year commercial satellite business. He’s credited as the brainchild of Hughes’ most popular satellite model, the HS-601. He was one of the first engineers I had met when first starting my career (at Hughes Space and Communications), and for several years he had been a strategic advisor to Ecliptic.

In mid-January 2008, Symmes called me and said he was working on a space project that needed an onboard video system. I pressed him for some details and he replied, “Have you ever heard of the Google Lunar X PRIZE?”

“Sure,” I said. “In fact, Ecliptic is registered as a stealth team.”

“Oh… really?” Ron chuckled. “So is the team that I’m on!”

This exchange started an interesting unpeeling of mutual non-disclosure agreements over a day or two until it was clear what was going on with both teams. Once I realized that Symmes was on a crack team led by the legendary Rosen I was intrigued, and once I got an inkling of Rosen’s new lander concept from a simple home-made video5, I was hooked.

After an introductory meeting with Rosen and his expanding team, I was invited in late January 2008 to be Deputy Project Manager—a position I enthusiastically accepted. I also withdrew Ecliptic’s stealth registration after explaining the situation to the X PRIZE Foundation.


By early 2008, Rosen’s all-volunteer team consisted of eleven experienced space systems, avionics, and propulsion engineers; two grad students; a practicing artist; and two high school students.

Individually, all of the technical team had worked from years to decades at Hughes Space and Communications in El Segundo, and combined their names appear on 130 space-related patents, many of them fundamental patents. This small group had over 400 years of space industry experience and had actively contributed to over 500 actual space missions. (See the full team bios here.)

After assessing the team’s composition, likely partners needed to win the prize and cultural heritage of the group—ex-Hughes, most with one or more college degrees from Caltech, UCLA and/or USC—I suggested to Rosen and Castleman that the team’s name be changed to Southern California Selene Group. They concurred, so we became SCSG instead of SMSG.

By early February, team activity ramped up on all fronts in anticipation of a big event planned for February 21st at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California: the public announcement of all registered teams. The SCSG mission design and spacecraft system design were refined, potential suppliers and partners visited, photos and videos taken and edited, website entries posted, team background info written, handouts prepared, and travel and hotel reservations made. It was a busy time.

The full team typically met on Saturdays at the Rosen-Castleman home in Santa Monica, with splinter meetings during the week at various favorite restaurants and haunts in the El Segundo area. Since most of the team members had worked together before—some on many dozens of missions—the inherent effectiveness and productivity of the team was palpable. I witnessed more technical output during a single week from this small team than other larger teams I have been involved with could generate in a month.

team meeting
A typical SCSG team meeting at the Rosen-Castleman home in Santa Monica, mostly conducted with paper, pencil and brains. (credit: Josh Rosen, March 2008)

A novel lander concept

Starting with the Syncom series in the early 1960s at Hughes, Rosen and his technical staff pioneered the science, engineering and art of spinning satellites, first with increasing capable “solid spinners” where the entire satellite spins like a gyroscope, and, by the late 1960s, “dual-spin” designs, where part of the spacecraft spins and another part is maintained in a “despun” state. In a dual-spun design, the two sections are connected via an integrated mechanical bearing/electric spin-rate control motor (rotor controller); the assembly also allows for the transfer of power and signals across the spun-despun interface.

Both spacecraft architectures are quite scalable in size and capability, and for nearly forty years Hughes successfully developed and launched dozens of variations and hundreds of individual satellites, dominating the industry with proposal win rates often in the 60–80% range.

“If it spins, it wins!” was one of Rosen’s favorite proclamations during those heady years.

Hughes heritage
The spinning satellite heritage pioneered by Rosen at team at Hughes during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. (The oddball is the Surveyor lunar lander, a JPL design built by Hughes for NASA.) Spinning satellite designs captured early dominance in the commercial space arena because their various subsystems were inherently simple, mass-efficient and scalable. Incremental changes in size and functionality developed over nearly four decades and applied to over 130 missions clearly demonstrated the versatility of the spinning architecture. (credit: Hughes Space and Communications, 1985)
spinning satellite design
In a dual-spin satellite, typically the telecommunications payload electronics and antennas are on the despun side, while power, propulsion and primary structure are on the spun side. Shown here is the layout for one of the largest dual-spinners produced by Hughes, Leasat (also called Syncom 4), five of which were launched and deployed by the Space Shuttle. (credit: Hughes Space and Communications, 1985)

The lander idea that had been in Rosen’s head since the early 1960s but had never been put into practice was, in Rosen’s words, “an elegantly simple design that can be implemented quickly and inexpensively”: a spinning lander.

The spinning lander concept starts with a classic dual-spin spacecraft architecture, where the spinning module provides robust gyroscopic attitude stability, a relatively benign thermal environment (by evenly distributing heat loads) and centripetal acceleration (for effective propellant settling and flow control), connected to the despun module via the bearing/rotor assembly. The despun module typically hosts the telecommunications payloads and related antennas.

What converts this proven, robust, scalable architecture to a lander is the addition of landing legs to the despun section, plus some sort of landing radar (or equivalent) and mission-specific equipment such as science instruments, sensors, and technology or commercial payloads.

spinning lander design
Rosen’s spinning lander concept. (credit: SCSG, 2008)

Most core spacecraft subsystems needed for a spinning lander—power, telemetry and command, telecommunications, attitude control, despun and spun module control, propulsion, etc.—are nearly identical to those designed into over a hundred successful dual-spin spacecraft missions conducted from 1969 through 2003. For nearly 40 years, Rosen and team developed a variety of technologies and design techniques that demonstrated the scalability of the basic architecture and subsystem capabilities, and compatibility with most available launch options. These innovations helped to accelerate progress in the burgeoning geostationary telecommunications satellite market. Several solar system-exploration spacecraft also employed the dual-spin architecture: Pioneer Venus Orbiter andMultiprobe (two spacecraft, both launched 1978), SakigakiSuisei, and Giotto (Halley flyby spacecraft, 1985) and Galileo (Jupiter orbiter, 1989).

The lander idea that had been in Rosen’s head since the early 1960s but had never been put into practice was, in Rosen’s words, “an elegantly simple design that can be implemented quickly and inexpensively”: a spinning lander.

For venturing beyond the GEO arc to the Moon and beyond, spinning lander operations during launch, Earth escape, cruise, and target approach are essentially the same as any typical dual-spin mission to GEO. Control of spacecraft velocity, spin rate, and attitude is accomplished via relatively simple and independent sets of thrusters: axial (parallel to spin axis), radial (normal to spin axis), and tangential (to spinning section rim). In free space, bulk spin rate of the spacecraft is controlled with the tangential thrusters, while relative spin rate and azimuth phase control between the despun and spun sections is accomplished with the bearing/rotor assembly, which passes power and signals across the interface via a series of slip rings. Telecom antennas, scaled to meet mission objectives, can be mounted to both sections, though the higher gain antenna(s) are almost always on the despun section.

During the terminal landing phase, the spinning portion of the lander continues to spin until touchdown, providing significant gyroscopic stability to the entire landed system. Before touchdown the despun section (with legs) is set to zero spin, allowing the legs to perform much like any typical set of lander legs does during landing. Importantly, because of its gyro stiffness, this system essentially can’t tip over during landing, but will rather “bounce” or “stick” depending on the leg system design.

Depending on mission goals, once on the surface the spacecraft’s spinning section can either be stopped or left to spin at any desired rate via the rotor controller. In the spinning mode, the entire lander becomes an excellent hopper as well, providing extended range and coverage options, onboard propellant permitting. Selected instruments on the despun section can be controlled independently in azimuth and elevation during all mission phases using typical pan-tilt assemblies. Instruments and components on the spun side can be positioned in azimuth by rotation of the entire spun module.

The mass-efficient, cost-effective spinning lander system designs can, for relatively low total mission costs, address mission objectives for planetary exploration, resource utilization, and commercialization at various solar system destinations. Solar system mission capability is enabled primarily by how much onboard delta-V capability is incorporated (via some combination of liquid monopropellant, bipropellant, and/or solid kick motor systems) and available power (via spun- and despun-mounted solar arrays or radioisotope-based power generators).


The Spirit of Southern California

In a nod to Charles Lindbergh and the Orteig Prize, which motivated his pioneering flight across the Atlantic and decades later also inspired the formation of the X PRIZE, the team named the proposed GLXP lunar lander The Spirit of Southern California.

Rosen in the middle of his normal Saturday ritual of summarizing the latest lander mechanical design using full-scale structural drawings hand-drawn during the previous week by SCSG’s lead structures engineer, Al Wittmann. (credit: Rex Ridenoure, January 2008)

With various “going public” deadlines looming in mid-February, the team summarized the then-current lander mission and system design for a required posting at the GLXP website and hard-copy handouts planned for the Google HQ event. (This summary still appears at the SCSG’s team website; see the previous link to the team bios.) The baseline design at that time involved a SpaceX Falcon 1e launch, two ATK-supplied solid rocket motor kick stages (a STAR 30 and STAR 17), and an all-bipropellant liquid propulsion system on the lander itself.

The total mission cost—for everything—was announced in a team blog post a couple of weeks after the Google event: $20 million, and about two years of schedule.

The team announcement event at Google on February 21st went well, with ten teams showing a public face. Each team had a spokesperson who summarized the team and their conceptual approach to winning the prize. After this event it was clear to the SCSG team (and from what we heard later, several other teams) that the SCSG entry was a strong contender, as measured by the aggregate experience brought to the table by the individual team members, relatively mature end-to-end mission and spacecraft design6, relative simplicity of the lander concept and good sense for how the mission would be conducted operationally.

The spinning lander design fielded by SCSG was unique, and so similar to what the team’s members had designed, built, launched, and operated before (hundreds of times) that as a team we had a good feel for what the end-to-end mission effort would cost, especially after getting fresh pricing data from most key suppliers.

The total mission cost—for everything—was announced in a team blog post a couple of weeks after the Google event: $20 million, and about two years of schedule.

The Spirit of Southern California (left) vs. Surveyor (2nd from left) and other lunar systems, as unveiled at the Google HQ event. (credit: SCSG, February 2008)

Design evolution

The mission and system design at the time of the Google event was pretty good, but improved Falcon 1e launch performance estimates provided by SpaceX in April 2008, subsequently combined with very clever systems engineering by the SCSG team, the lander evolved to an even simpler and more elegant design by the end of May 2008.

Rosen stepping the SCSG team through another design trade following the team’s public announcement at Google HQ. The March-May 2008 period was a very productive time for the team. (credit: Rex Ridenoure, March 2008)

During this time, a few additional team members came onboard, including a very interested and enthusiastic six-year-old boy referred to us by the X PRIZE Foundation (at that time also based in Santa Monica). He was an instant hit with the team and, with his mother’s permission, anointed team “mascot.”

Lucas and Rosen
SCSG team “mascot” Lucas gets feedback from Rosen on one of his lunar rover designs. (credit: Rex Ridenoure, April 2008)

Briefly, this was the final SCSG plan for winning the prize: A Falcon 1e launch placed the all-bipropropellant lander spacecraft with an attached ATK-supplied STAR 30 solid-motor kick stage into a 200-kilometer altitude Earth orbit. The lander’s spinning section included the solar arrays; biprop propulsion system; Sun and Moon sensors for attitude determination; a single, relatively simple landing radar; telemetry and communication transmitters; a command receiver; antennas; and a control processor. The despun section contained the landing gear, structural closeouts, and a microwave-transparent mast that surrounded the antennas and supported a separately rotatable camera assembly at the top.

After the STAR 30 translunar injection burn, the approximately 240-kilogram lander—about 50 kilograms of dry mass and the rest bipropellants, providing an ~80% propellant mass fraction allowing for more than 4.5 kilometers/second delta-V capability—spun at 100 rpm in ecliptic normal attitude during its 90-hour cruise to the Moon, targeting a landing shortly after local lunar sunrise near 70 degrees W, 0 degrees N.

The landing site chosen by Rosen resulted in a nearly vertical approach angle, requiring a negligible change in spin-axis attitude during the descent. This choice of landing site also permitted the use of the transfer orbit communications antenna system for lunar operations. (In an elegant blending of old and new, this antenna design was identical that used for Syncom in the early 1960s.)

The resulting SCSG lander-hopper design was dramatically smaller and lighter than theSurveyor landers launched over forty years before. And it could hop like a lunatic jumping spider.

The GLXP rules offer a bonus prize of $1 million for any team which can also image an existing artifact on the Moon with their lander. I was curious whether anything of interest might be near our intended landing site, and discovered after a quick peek at a National Geographic map of the Moon that the very first lunar lander, the USSR’s Luna 9, also landed at this location, for pretty much the same reasons Rosen independently employed to justify the SCSG team’s choice. Great minds think alike…

landing site
Ridenoure indicating SCSG’s planned landing site: the same place Luna 9 landed decades before. (credit: Rex Ridenoure, May 2009)

Orbit corrections during cruise consumed about 20 kilograms of bipropellant. At a lunar altitude of several hundred kilometers, with an approach speed of approximately 2.5 kilometers/second, the now ~220-kilogram lander began its descent phase using its large axial thruster for braking and small (pulsed) axial thrusters for attitude control.

The landing radar, aimed 20 degrees away from the spin axis, measured altitude and vector velocity relative to the Moon, starting at an altitude of about 50 kilometers. Horizontal velocity errors were driven to zero by pulsing the radial thrusters. The axial thrusters, through an appropriate descent velocity-versus-altitude profile, controlled the lander to a soft landing. At about 1 meter above the surface, the thrusters were turned off and the ensuing free fall was stabilized by the inherent gyro stiffness of the spacecraft and cushioned by the flexible landing legs. After a nominal landing, at least 30 kilograms of bipropellant remained for hopping, enabling a potential hopping range of about 5 kilometers (vs. the GLXP-required 0.5 kilometers).

To meet the all GLXP Mooncast requirements, a HD camera system designed from ruggedized commercially available components was mounted at the top of the antenna mast. It enabled views looking downward to the top of the lander and nearby lunar surface as well as outward to the distant lunar horizon. The camera itself stared in a generally upward orientation at a tiltable mirror that provided the required elevation viewing range. The pan requirement was met by rotating the camera/mirror assembly around the mast axis.

For comparison, the resulting SCSG lander-hopper design was dramatically smaller and lighter (about one sixth the mass) than the Surveyor landers launched over forty years before.

And it could hop like a lunatic jumping spider.

Spinning out

With the mission and spacecraft design converged to a comfortable baseline by mid May, the SCSG team put more effort into understanding the source of supply for the various hardware elements required to execute the project: the Falcon 1e rocket; the STAR 30 kick stage; propellant tanks, thrusters, valves and lines; solar cells, electronics, and structures.

Prices from preferred suppliers were solicited and received. Spare propellant tanks destined for the salvage heap were pledged (at little or no cost to the SCSG team) by Boeing Satellite Systems. An entire floor of an El Segundo office building was pledged by another aerospace firm in exchange for quarterly strategic planning meetings with Rosen. Working SCSG team members were negotiating with their “day job” firms for possible leaves of absence—at least one quit his job—while retired members were considering coming out of retirement for an active (and hopefully brief) stint on the team. Most of the team was willing to work for no charge in exchange for a share of the $20-million first-place prize.

Then things unraveled, and in a hurry.

A GLXP “summit” was held in Strasbourg, France on May 20th. SCSG sent Castleman, who reported on the trip a few days later on the team’s blog, titling her post as “Some serious thinking at the Southern California Selene Group.” Per her blog post:

“The Team Summit turned out to be a real wakeup call. In the guidelines workshop that I attended just last Tuesday, the cumulative effect of hearing all day from [the GLXP organizers] that the ‘real purpose’ of the Google Lunar X PRIZE was to promote the so-called commercialization of space (which I took to mean highly impractical stuff like mining the moon and beaming power to the Earth, as shown in one of GLXP kickoff videos), humanity’s future in space, etc. etc., took its toll. I couldn’t help but think ‘what am I doing here?’ When I spoke to Harold about it on the phone later, he agreed—no way did he want to be involved in promoting a goal he does not believe in.”

As it turns out, neither Rosen nor his like-minded wife have ever been advocates or supporters of human space travel or visions of expansive human activity in space—government or commercial.

After another fretful day of considering their fundamental disconnect with the GLXP backers on visions of the future in space, other issues specific to the GLXP competition, rumors of the phase-out of the Falcon 1e rocket and the obvious “big elephant in the room” for all teams—funding—Castleman posted a final farewell on the SCSG blog.

Harold and Deborah were no longer having fun. The team was OUT.


The SCSG team disbanded more quickly that it formed. But the spinning lander idea did not fade away as an asterisk in some space-history book. Realizing the uniqueness of the concept, in early 2008 Rosen filed a provisional patent for the spinning lander, starting a one-year fuse until a formal patent application was due.

Symmes and I expressed interest in promoting the concept to other potential partners and customers—none related to the GLXP competition—and Rosen gladly and generously offered his support.

Just before the one-year deadline a formal and very comprehensive patent application prepared by me and Rosen’s patent attorney was filed in the U.S. and internationally, with Rosen named as the inventor. The summary of the invention reads as follows:

“The invention provides a novel, low-cost, spin-stabilized lander architecture capable (with appropriate system scaling tailored to the attributes of the target) of performing a soft-landing on a solar-system body such as Earth’s Moon, Mars, Venus, the moons of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, selected near-Earth and main-belt asteroids, comets and Kuiper belt objects and even large human-made objects, and also moving about on the surface of the target solar-system body after the initial landing in movement akin to hopping.”

A year later, in early 2010, Rosen assigned the still-pending patent over to Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, noting that “I have already commercialized space technology that created hundreds of billions of dollars of value in the marketplace, and don’t need to do that again!”

At age 87 Harold Rosen is still consulting, still swinging rings at Santa Monica Beach, and still innovating. And several members of the SCSG team stand ready to give Rosen’s new lander concept a spin.

As the new carrier of the spinning lander torch, in summer 2011 I started exposing the concept to an expanded audience of potential customers and users, first at the Low-Cost Planetary Missions Conference held at Applied Physics Lab in Maryland, with a very positive reception from several firms, labs and teams.7I had put a bit more substance to the concept by suggesting some design variants which would be applicable to landing on other solar system bodies, or to simply do more at the Earth’s Moon than win a prize. Subsequent public and private presentations have been made and discussions held (including one funded assessment contract), and more are planned.

lander designs
Subsequent spinning lander concept studies: a Mars lander (left) and Europa lander (right). (credit: From Ref. 5; Sketches by Lance Ridenoure)

After a couple of rounds of modifications to the application, in January 2013 the US Patent and Trademark Office granted patent number 8,353,481 for a spin-stablized lander to Harold A. Rosen.8 Multiple international patents are still pending.

Meanwhile, at age 87 Harold Rosen is still consulting, still swinging rings at Santa Monica Beach, and still innovating.

And several members of the SCSG team stand ready to give Rosen’s new lander concept a spin.


1 For a summary of the Syncom program, see

2 For more on Rosen, see

3 For background on the Google Lunar X PRIZE, see

4 Links to Castleman’s blog posts are also on this website page.

5 This is the home-made video produced by Rosen that elegantly introduced the core idea underlying his new lander concept:

6 This animation sequence was first shown at the SCSG team’s public announcement at Google in February 2008. It depicts SCSG’s spinning lander concept and end-to-end mission sequence for winning the GLXP. It was produced by Josh Rosen (Rosen’s grandson) and his friend Max Johnson, both high school students on the team.

7 2011 Jun 21–24, R. Ridenoure and R. Symmes: Spinning Landers: A New Spacecraft System Architecture for Solar System Exploration; presented at Low-Cost Planetary Missions Conference #9, held at Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, MD.

8 See the patent details at

Rex Ridenoure was Deputy Project Manager on the SCSG GLXP effort in 2008. He is currently CEO of IZUP LLC, a consultancy focused on the intersection of space technology, beyond-GEO commercial space development, and the investor community. Starting with an undergraduate internship on the Viking Mars missions at JPL, he continued to work as a space-mission engineer on pathfinding space projects such as the earliest satellites deployed from the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager/Neptune encounter, the ion-propelled Deep Space 1 mission, and numerous small satellite-based mission concepts. During 1998–2001, he was deeply involved with some of the earliest attempts to field commercial deep-space missions at Microcosm, SpaceDev, and BlastOff. In 2001 he co-founded Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, home of the RocketCam™ onboard video system product family, serving as CEO and President through 2012. He remains an active Ecliptic Board member and co-owner. Contact Rex

GLXP Update: Big Summit Set for Next Week

Which Google Lunar X Prize teams are serious? Which ones are little more than vaporware? And which teams have a serious chance of winning?

The answers to those questions will get a little bit clearer next week. The 23 teams competing to land a rover on the moon will meet in Santiago, Chile, beginning next Tuesday for their annual Summit.

The four-day meeting will be a crucial gathering during which participants will be able to better assess which teams are actually moving forward with their attempts to win the $20 million first prize. With the deadline set for the end of 2015, teams need to have their funding in place and rides to the moon set up by now to be serious contenders.

It is expected that several major announcements will come out of the meeting next week, likely involving financing, launch agreements, and  team mergers, acquisitions and cooperative agreements. The field has already shrunk from 33 to 23 teams and will likely be reduced further as teams drop out or are merge.

The entire prize totals $30 million, including a $20 million first prize and a $5 million second prize. There are $5 million in additional prizes for achieving various goals.

The first prize will shrink by $15 million if a government places a rover on the moon before any of the GLXP contestants. China is planning to launch a rover toward the end of this year. None of teams is expected to launch earlier than the Chinese attempt.