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Moon rover
A prototype moon rover makes an appearance at the 2007 kickoff of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition. (XPRIZE Photo)

The organizers for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition acknowledged today that the award for a commercially funded lunar landing will go unwon, despite a decade’s worth of work.

But the California-based XPRIZE foundation’s top executives said they were looking for ways to keep a spotlight on the contest, even after Google’s prize money goes away on March 31.

“This may include finding a new title sponsor to provide a prize purse following in the footsteps of Google’s generosity, or continuing the Lunar XPRIZE as a non-cash competition where we will follow and promote the teams and help celebrate their achievements,” executive chairman Peter Diamandis and CEO Marcus Shingles said in their statement.

The prize was created in 2007 as a follow-up to the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which was paid out to the backers of SpaceShipOne in 2004 for the first privately funded flight to the edge of space.

A top award of $20 million would have gone to the first team to put a lander on the lunar surface, have it travel at least 500 meters (1,640 feet), and send live imagery back to Earth.

Initially, 2012 was set as the deadline for performing the feat, but that date was repeatedly pushed back. Google and XPRIZE agreed not to push it back any further than March 31 of this year.

More than 30 teams registered for the competition, and the program paid some of those teams $6 million for reaching milestones in their development programs. Five teams stuck it out to the end: Israel’s Team SpaceIL, India’s TeamIndus, Japan’s Team Hakuto and the U.S.-based teams Moon Express and Synergy Moon.

None of those teams was in a position to make a launch attempt by March 31, the XPRIZE executives said. However, team leaders intend to keep working on moon missions. Additional teams that didn’t make the cut, such as Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and Germany’s PTScientists, are continuing to plan for lunar landings as well.

“We are extraordinarily grateful to Google for enabling this 10-year journey with us and for having the foresight and courage to support and catalyze the commercial space industry, which was the ultimate goal of this competition,” the XPRIZE execs said in their statement. “As a result of this competition, we have sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the moon.”

The acknowledgment of the prize program’s end came just days after Rocket Lab successfully sent its Electron rocket and three satellite payloads into orbit from a New Zealand launch pad. That stirred fresh attention for the Google Lunar X Prize, in part because Moon Express has a contract with Rocket Labs for up to five launches.

Today Rocket Lab revealed that it used a third “kick stage” on its rocket to put Spire’s two Lemur-2 satellites into their proper orbits. Forty minutes after reaching orbit, the kick stage fired up a 3-D-printed, restartable liquid-propulsion rocket engine called Curie to get into the right position for satellite deployment, Rocket Lab said.

Even though Rocket Lab was successful, Moon Express isn’t yet in the right position to take advantage of an Electron launch. Getting to orbit is only the first step: Moon Express’ mission plan calls for conducting a complex series of maneuvers after reaching low Earth orbit.

Here’s the full statement from XPRIZE’s Diamandis and Shingles:

“After close consultation with our five finalist Google Lunar XPRIZE teams over the past several months, we have concluded that no team will make a launch attempt to reach the Moon by the March 31st, 2018 deadline.  This literal ‘moonshot’ is hard, and while we did expect a winner by now, due to the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges, the grand prize of the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE will go unclaimed.

“We are extraordinarily grateful to Google for enabling this 10-year journey with us and for having the foresight and courage to support and catalyze the commercial space industry, which was the ultimate goal of this competition.

“As a result of this competition, we have sparked the conversation and changed expectations with regard to who can land on the moon. Many now believe it’s no longer the sole purview of a few government agencies, but now may be achieved by small teams of entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from around the world. We are thankful to the teams for their decade of hard work, and acknowledge that a number of our teams are now, finally building flight ready hardware, contracting with launch providers and are close to being able to make their attempt to land on the moon.

“XPRIZE is exploring a number of ways to proceed from here. This may include finding a new title sponsor to provide a prize purse following in the footsteps of Google’s generosity, or continuing the Lunar XPRIZE as a non-cash competition where we will follow and promote the teams and help celebrate their achievements.

“Even though we are disappointed that we do not have a winner at this time, we are proud of the impact that the Google Lunar XPRIZE has achieved to date. Over the course of this competition:

  1. Teams and the companies that own the teams have raised more than $300 million through corporate sponsorships, government contracts and venture capital, including the largest space-related series A investment of $90 million;
  2. Hundreds of jobs were created and the first commercial space companies were established in India, Malaysia, Israel and Hungary;
  3. Through educational programs, we have engaged hundreds of thousands of young people across the globe, sparking an interest in exploration and STEM fields;
  4. We have also seen regulatory reform: one team received the first-ever payload review approval from the FAA to leave Earth’s orbit in their quest to complete their lunar mission;
  5. We have already awarded more than $6 million in prize money to teams over the course of the competition, in recognition of the milestones they have accomplished; and,
  6. Finally, we have secured global media exposure for our teams, including a recent 32-page feature in National Geographic, a segment on ‘The Today Show,’ and a 9-part web series, ‘Moon Shot,’ executive produced by J.J. Abrams, inspiring millions of people around the world with the story of the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

“In conclusion, it’s incredibly difficult to land on the Moon. If every XPRIZE competition we launch has a winner, we are not being audacious enough, and we will continue to launch competitions that are literal or figurative moonshots, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We are inspired by the progress of the Google Lunar XPRIZE teams, and will continue to support their journey, one way or another, and will be there to help shine the spotlight on them when they achieve that momentous goal.”

Update for 7 p.m. PT Jan. 23: In response to inquiries, Google emailed this statement acknowledging that “the prize is coming to an end”:

“Google is proud to have partnered with XPrize in sponsoring the Google Lunar XPrize for the past 10 years. We set out on this journey in 2007, excited by the potential of the prize to spur innovation and discovery in commercial space travel. The accomplishments of the teams who have participated in Google Lunar XPrize over the years has made us even more excited for the future of this industry. Though the prize is coming to an end, we continue to hold a deep admiration for all Google Lunar XPrize teams, and we will be rooting for them as they continue their pursuit of the moon and beyond. To all teams, thank you for inspiring us to dream big and work hard.”

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