Google's $20 million race to the moon will end with no winner — and Google is OK with that

Key Points
  • Google does not plan to extend the $20 million Lunar Xprize beyond its March deadline.
  • The four teams racing to win the prize are either short of money or unable to launch this year, sources familiar with the situation tell CNBC.
  • But a market for lunar exploration and mining unthinkable a decade ago now exists.

More than ten years after it was announced — and extended over and over — the Google-sponsored race to win $20 million by landing on the moon will end with no winners.

The four teams racing to win the Google Lunar Xprize, which requires a company to land a spacecraft on the moon by March 31, are either short of money or unable to launch this year, three people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

Meanwhile, Google — which extended the deadline from 2014 to 2015 and then eventually to 2018 — is not willing to push out the date further.

"Google does not have plans at this time to extend the deadline again, however we are so thrilled with the progress made by these teams over the last ten years," a Google spokesperson said in a statement to CNBC.

The Xprize Foundation, the independent organization overseeing the contest, declined CNBC's requests for comment.

The commercial space industry has written off the Lunar Xprize as improbable, and not worth pursuing, according to sources. While the competition's era may be coming to a close, the "New Space" industry is only just beginning. A market exists in a way that it did not 10 years ago, and predictions of it ballooning into a multi-trillion dollar economy are increasing.

Lunar Xprize spurred the creation of numerous companies, which made steps that were thought impossible before.

The teams competing to the end

Four teams around the world have been racing to complete spacecrafts capable of landing on and exploring the moon's surface. However, none are close enough to launch for Google to justify extending the deadline.

Team SpaceIL is short on funding and the other three — Moon Express, TeamIndus and Synergy Moon — will not be ready to launch this year.

SpaceIL. "We'll be ready to launch somewhere in 2018," SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman told CNBC. "But we would definitely like it to move back. No one will be able to launch by the end of March."

The Israeli nonprofit needed to raise $7.5 million by the end of 2017 to pay for its launch contract, building and testing of its lunar craft, as well as payments for its engineers and partners. SpaceIL said that if it did not raise the funding, it will forfeit the launch contract it currently has, causing the team to drop out of the competition.

"Give us another few months — until the end of 2018," Privman said of the Lunar Xprize deadline.

SpaceIL did not respond to multiple CNBC requests for comment after the fundraising deadline passed.

TeamIndus. The next closest competitor to SpaceIL is TeamIndus, according to two people familiar with the matter.

TeamIndus entered into an agreement in December 2016 with Japanese Team Hakuto to launch both team's rovers aboard an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) rocket. However, on January 11, Team Hakuto announced that TeamIndus had not been able to agree with ISRO on a launch date to send the rovers to the moon.

"It is now deemed difficult to launch [the rovers] before the race deadline of March 31," Hakuto said in a statement.

Team Hakuto was originally a separate effort from Japanese start-up ispace. A Hakuto spokesperson confirmed to CNBC the team's rover arrived at the TeamIndus facility on Dec. 19, for pre-launch inspections.

TeamIndus declined CNBC's request for comment.

Moon Express is "still hoping to launch the lander next year," but has said that the competition is not the company's main priority. The company has won more than $600,000 under NASA's Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data Program, and $1.25 million as a part of previous milestones of the Lunar Xprize.

The company has an existing five-launch contract with Rocket Lab, which completed the second test of its Electron vehicle on Saturday. The rocket reached orbit for the first time, deploying a payload of micro-satellites. However, a person familiar with the Electron rocket said the Moon Express lander is too heavy for the Electron rocket, making it physically impossible to put the spacecraft into an orbit capable of reaching the moon.

Moon Express declined CNBC's request for comment, instead pointing to a recent Space News op-ed by CEO Bob Richards titled "applauding the Google Lunar Xprize."

This startup plans to land on the moon in 2018
This startup plans to land on the moon in 2018

Synergy Moon has a launch agreement with Interorbital Systems to use a Neptune 8 rocket, which the latter company has not yet built or tested. The Interorbital rocket currently undergoing testing is a sounding rocket — meaning it cannot even reach Earth orbit, much less making it to the moon.

Synergy Moon did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Success without a winner

While the $20 million grand prize will go unclaimed, those familiar with the Lunar Xprize and the teams involved were still positive about what was accomplished.

Over $6 million in milestone prizes were awarded to teams over the past few years, as competitors demonstrated various concepts and capabilities. Teams demonstrated hardware and software capable of landing, moving around and capturing images on the moon. These showed what is possible with next generation technology, developed at a fraction of the cost of previous government missions.

Google has struggled to figure out what to do with the Lunar Xprize, said a source with knowledge of the company's relationship with Xprize.

The relationship started with noble intentions. Back in 2007, when Xprize founder Dr. Peter Diamandis was looking for other backers, he overheard a conversation by Google co-founder Sergey Brin about space. Diamandis then convinced several Google executives to back the prize.

Google came on board, but Brin never undertook it as a personal project and the technology giant largely stayed out of the competition's operations. The program essentially fell between departments and, on a Google scale, it was a small venture to fund.

When it was clear no team would be ready for the original 2014 deadline, the Foundation convinced Google to extend it to 2015. According to the Foundation, the Lunar Xprize was then extended two more times: to the end of 2017 and finally to March 2018.

Additionally, a few years after the prize's announcement, water was discovered in mass amounts on the moon's surface. Mining in space is a moonshot which may quickly become both doable and profitable, and commercial companies are now building spacecraft to recover water for use as fuel. They have tens of millions in backing to do so.

Success, for the ventures in the competition, was reaching the moon's surface — winning the prize would have been just a bonus.