Announced back in 2007 Google’s Lunar X-Prize was an incredibly ambitious idea. Originally the aim was to spur the then nascent private space industry to look beyond low earth orbit, hoping to see a new lunar rover land on the moon by 2012. As with all things space though these things take time and as the deadline approached not one of the registered teams had made enough meaningful progress towards even launching a craft. That deadline now extends to the end of this year and many of the teams are much closer to actually launching something. One of them has been backed by Audi and have their sights set on more than just the basic requirements.
The team, called Part Time Scientists (PTS), has designed a rover that’s being called the Audi Lunar Quattro. Whilst details are scant as to what the specifications are the rover recently made a debut at the Detroit Auto Show where a working prototype was showcased. In terms of capabilities it looks to be focused primarily on the X-Prize objectives, sporting just a single instrument pod which contains the requisite cameras. One notable feature it has is the ability to tilt its solar panels in either direction, allowing it to charge more efficiency during the lunar day. As to what else in under the hood we don’t yet know but there are a few things we can infer from what their goals are for the Audi Lunar Quattro’s mission.
The Google Lunar X-Prize’s main objective is for a private company (with no more than 10% government funding) to land a rover on the moon, drive it 500m and stream the whole thing in real time back to earth in high definition. It’s likely that the large camera on the front is used for the video stream whilst the two smaller ones either side are likely stereoscopic imagers to help with driving it on the lunar surface. PTS have also stated that they want to travel to the resting site of the Lunar Roving Vehicle left behind by Apollo 17. This likely means that much of the main body of the rover is dedicated to batteries as they’ll need to move some 2.3KM in order to cover off that objective.
There’s a couple other objectives they potentially could be shooting for although the relative simplicity of the rover rules out a few of them. PTS have already said they want to go for the Apollo Heritage Prize so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went for the Heritage Prize as well. There’s the possibility they could be going for the range prize as if their rover is capable of covering half the distance then I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t do it again. The rover likely can’t get the Survival Prize as surviving a Lunar night is a tough challenge with a solar powered craft. I’d also doubt its ability to detect water as that single instrument stalk doesn’t look like it could house the appropriate instrumentation to accomplish it.
One thing that PTS haven’t yet completed though, and this will be crucial to them succeeding, is locking in a launch contract. They’ve stated that they want to launch a pair of rovers in the 3rd quarter of 2017 however without a launch deal signed now I’m skeptical about whether or not this can take place. Only 2 teams competing for the Lunar X-Prize have locked in launch contracts to date and with the deadline fast approaching it’s going to get harder to find a rocket that has the required capabilities.
Still it’s exciting to see the Lunar X-Prize begin to bear fruit. The initial 5 year timeline was certainly aggressive but it appears to have helped spur on numerous companies towards achieving the lofty goal. Whilst it might take another 5 years past that original deadline to fulfill it the lessons learned and technology developed along the way will prove invaluable both on the moon and back here on earth. Whilst we’re not likely to see a landing inside of this year I’m sure we’ll something the year afterwards. That’s practically tomorrow, when you’re talking in space time.