The Lunar XPrize is a $US30 million competition for a privately-funded mission to get to the moon, land a rover, and travel across the moon sending back images and telemetry. The Google-sponsored prize has been around since 2007, but it looks like first place is going to come down to a mad dash across the lunar surface.
Although there's technically a bunch of teams remaining in the competition, two of the frontrunners — the Japanese HAKUTO team, and Astrobotic — have teamed up to deploy their missions to the moon next year, aboard the same SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. First place in the Lunar X competition will go to the first robot that explores at least 500m and transmits HD video and images back to Earth. You can see where this is going.
In a press release, Astrobotic's CEO said that "we envision a 'NASCAR on the Moon' scenario, where competing teams land together, and countries can cheer on their team to the finish line. HAKUTO is the first team signed to fulfil our dream of the first race beyond Earth's orbit."
Although travelling 500m doesn't sound like much of a race, you have to bear in mind the kind of vehicles being used here. NASA's Curiosity rover, for example, the most technologically advanced vehicle to land on Mars, is cruising along at a barnstorming 30 metres per hour.
Then you've got the other challenges to consider — getting into orbit sans explosion, landing successfully and not breaking down in the first 100m. If these brand-new companies without the budget or experience of NASA can pull it off, it will be a major milestone for private space exploration — not to mention a whole new world of commercial opportunity for NASCAR. [Astrobotic]