'Mystery' Lunar X Prize team unveiled

At NASA's Ames Research Center on Wednesday, the latest entrant in the race to get a private team to the moon announced its participants.

A team calling itself Next Giant Leap pulled back the wraps Wednesday on the participants--individuals and their companies--who will attempt to win the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Next Giant Leap

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--There are now 16 announced teams registered for the Google Lunar X Prize competition, with a so-called "mystery" team unveiling its participants Wednesday.

During a press conference held at NASA Ames Research Center here, the Next Giant Leap team--which had actually been the fifth team to register for the competition--finally pulled the wraps on its team members and the companies or institutions they work for.

The Google Lunar X Prize is a $20 million purse that will be awarded to the first privately-funded team to land a rover on the moon, travel at least 500 meters across the surface, and then send two packages of video, data, and images back to Earth. If no one completes the mission by December 31, 2012, the first prize drops to $15 million.

The Next Giant Leap team is led by its founder Michael Joyce, and among its members are former space shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman, currently a professor at MIT.

Joyce said he was ready to reveal the team's participants now because of progress it had made, including coming up with the design for the lunar lander pictured above.

The companies and institutions involved in Next Giant Leap include MicroSat Systems, which builds satellites, among other things ; Draper Laboratories, a specialist in space guidance navigation and control; and MIT's department of aeronautics and astronautics.

Lunar X Prize senior director for special projects William Pomerantz said on January 1, 2009, the application fee for the competition goes up from its current $10,000 to $30,000. Therefore, he expects a flurry of registrants to materialize before the new year.

That means, he said, that he expects the total number of competitors to go up from 16 today to around 25 or 26 in the end.

To Hoffman, one of the exciting aspects of getting involved in an effort to send a private team to the moon is evolving from what NASA learned from its lunar missions.

"The big challenge," Hoffman said, "is to learn how to do it affordably. The other big challenge, even if it is 'affordable,' we still have to raise the money to do it."

That may be a particularly difficult task, given today's economic environment.

But Pomerantz said while Lunar X Prize officials recognize the tough conditions, they're still optimistic that enough teams will follow through on their participation in the competition to make it worthwhile.

That's because, Pomerantz suggested, sponsorship money is still strong for such efforts because companies still have to advertise, and some are seeing the value of putting resources into high-profile things such as this competition.

And to Joyce, the Next Giant Leap team founder, the fund-raising issue boils down to his hope that there are people out there with resources and vision.

"We see that there is a long-term business plan beyond the prize," Joyce said, alluding to the hope that the winners of the competition can begin to commercialize their success.

 

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