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Google lunar challenge gets under way

Google and the X Prize Foundation kick off their Google Lunar X Prize, announcing the first 10 registered competitors.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--A privately funded race to land a rover on the moon could cost each team well more than the $20 million grand prize they're vying for, but all of the contestants view Google's Lunar X Prize as a new engine for business in space.

On Thursday, the X Prize Foundation announced the first 10 teams entered in the Google Lunar X Prize. Unveiled in September 2007, the Google Lunar X Prize requires contestants to land a privately funded robotic spacecraft on the moon, explore the terrain for at least 500 meters, and transmit results of the trip back to Earth. The grand prize is $20 million, with a second prize of $5 million and bonuses of $5 million.

While several teams had already thrown their hats in the ring, the 10 official registrants talked here Thursday at Google headquarters about their plans. Team Astrobotics, for example, said it plans to launch its mission as early as 2009. The teams were joined in a ceremony by X Prize President Peter Diamandis and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

"The idea of seeing these rovers on the moon and returning after 40 years...faster than the national programs, it's really exciting," Brin said to a small crowd of teams and press. "We love entrepreneurship here--it's worked well for us. So we're looking forward to the launches in the coming years."

Brin said during the event that when he, Diamandis, and friend Elon Musk (a supporter of the Lunar X Prize and founder of Space X) conceived of the contest, they thought the task of landing a rover back on the moon 40 years after NASA's last mission would cost in the tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars. Diamandis also added that, historically, prize-based competitions typically cost the entrants two to four times the purse money.

Similar to Burt Rutan, who won the Ansari X Prize four years ago and who has gone on to develop suborbital space company Scaled Composites, aspirants in the Google Lunar X Prize hope to make money by developing renewable transport systems for the moon or aiding robotic missions in space.

Red Whittaker, robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, winner of last year's DARPA Urban Challenge, and leader of Team Astrobotics, said that his plan is to provide transportation with his system, but also to boost the field of robotics. "The moon offers robots a tenfold advantage (over the Earth)," he said, referring to the low atmosphere and low light that is inhospitable to humans. The moon "doesn't have to keep (robots) breathing or bring them home."

Whittaker's team has built a solar-powered lunar craft and robotic system (which he compared to a saucer and a teacup, respectively) that, once on the lunar surface, will pop out of the lander and explore the moon for the required 500 meters and then some. All of the computing power, cameras, and communications systems are in the 3-foot-wide robot, he said.

He plans to launch the craft in late 2009 on the 40th anniversary of human arrival on the moon. He said he will aim it for the Apollo 11 site and then trundle on to other areas astronauts have visited before. Whittaker added that his team has already successfully demonstrated the exploration; but in the next year, they will perfect the system for a flight.

"This is just like the Grand or Urban Challenge (robotic car race); if you don't get everything right, then you don't get anything right," Whittaker said.

For example, when the robot breaks away from the landing vehicle, it can encounter problems and get hooked to the craft, he said. He compared the intricacy to the Grand Challenge in 2005, when his robotic car had the lead in the race but it slowed down because its fuel line got bent.

Whittaker said that to support his project and help reach out to aspiring engineers, his team will help put together a summer camp associated with the contest.

Team Micro-Space is a Colorado team led by Richard Speck, who also competed in the Ansari X Prize, a suborbital flight contest, and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Challenge, a competition to fly a lunar craft but from Earth. He said his company specializes in building low-mass space systems, so he plans to race an ultralight manned vehicle at one-tenth the cost of what NASA might spend on the feat.

Speck said that within four to six years, he hopes to provide the transportation for sensor and analytics companies to get to the moon and Mars. Yet, he said: "The hard part is the business plan to provide sustained economical activity."

Odyssey Moon, the first team to register for the prize, is based on Britain's Isle of Man and has a multinational team. Odyssey Moon's team leader, Robert Richards, said that attempting the prize may cost a multiple of the $20 million prize, but he said the "benefits outweigh the costs by opening up business opportunities."

"We are funding a responsible mission of returning to the moon that will bring the cost down by an order of magnitude. It's all about leveraging governments and working in partnerships with government," said Richards.

To be sure, the winning team stands to make some money from government, too. Steve Kohler, the president of Space Florida, also announced at the event that it would add $2 million to the $20 million grand prize for the team that launches its vehicle from Florida.

Diamandis said that his group has received 516 requests to register for the contest from more than 60 countries, including Kazakhstan. The 10 teams announced Thursday went through the registration process, filed a technical plan with the X Prize, and paid a $10,000 entrant fee. In contrast to the Ansari X Prize in 2004, the X Prize had only two contestants after six months. "We're way ahead of the power curve; we expect to see tremendous diversity," Diamandis said.

Diamandis said that the goal of the X Prize is to help fuel investigation of the moon's natural resources. "We look at space where there are vast resources--metals and materials and energy--because we can't sustain the level of growth we have today on Earth with the resources we have today," he said. One of the proposals of the X Prize Foundation, for example, is to mine the moon's surface for silicon to build a large solar-powered satellite that would send enough energy to Earth to power a city.

Harold Rosen, leader of the X Prize team called the Southern California Selene Group, called that a preposterous idea during the event. "I can think of 100,000 ways of getting energy on earth better than that."