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Google Lunar X Prize competitors have a little more time to get to the Moon

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Finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize Competition have a slightly revised deadline for sending their spacecraft to the surface of the Moon. Up until now, teams in the competition had to launch their robotic landers to the lunar surface sometime before December 31st, 2017 in order to be eligible to win the competition. Now, X Prize is doing away with the “launch” deadline and just sticking with a completion deadline, instead: teams must finish their missions to the Moon before March 31st, 2018, in order to win the grand prizes, regardless of when they launch.

It’s a deadline extension that could give competitors a little more time to complete all of the criteria laid out by the Google Lunar X Prize — an international competition to send the first privately funded spacecraft to the surface of the Moon. The contest calls for competitors to create a lunar spacecraft, with 90 percent of their funding coming from private sources. The teams must demonstrate that their vehicles can land gently on the Moon, and then move up to 1,640 feet (500 meters) across the lunar surface, taking pictures and video that can be sent back to Earth.

The first team to do this before the X Prize deadline is eligible to win the grand prize: a purse equaling $20 million. The second place team will win a $5 million purse. Earlier, teams had to launch before the end of the year to receive this grand prize money, but now a team could conceivably launch in February and still win, as long as their mission is completed before the end of March. The finalists have known about this change for a few months, but this is the first time X Prize is sharing the news publicly, according to the foundation.

It’s not just the grand prize purses that teams could win either. X Prize is offering bonus prizes for completing tasks such as visiting and filming an Apollo landing site. But the foundation is also announcing today the addition of two new milestone prizes that teams can win, even if they don’t complete all the main criteria for the grand prizes. These include a new $1.75 million Lunar Arrival Milestone Prize, for teams that complete one orbit around the Moon or enter a “direct descent approach to the lunar surface,” before the end of March. There’s also a new $3 million Soft Landing Milestone Prize, for teams that gently touch down on the lunar surface and transmit data back before the completion deadline.

So far, only five teams remain in the competition, narrowed down from dozens of competitors. The finalists include Moon Express, a US company aimed at mining the lunar surface someday; TeamIndus from India; Synergy Moon, an international group of scientists and engineers; SpaceIL from Israel; and HAKUTO from Japan. All five have secured rockets to take their vehicles to space, but there are some doubts as to whether or not these rockets will launch in time before the X Prize deadline. For instance, Moon Express has booked a ride on an experimental rocket that is still in its testing phase, leaving some uncertainty as to when it will start carrying customers. And SpaceIL is supposed to hitch a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, however that launch probably won’t happen before the end of 2017, according to Quartz.

Plus, the teams have yet to unveil the final vehicle they will be sending to the Moon, leading to speculation that the Google Lunar X Prize may not have a winner in the end. At least competitors now have a little more time to get their affairs in order and they could even win a few additional prizes, even if they don’t fulfill the main requirements of the competition.

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