10 Teams Sure They Have the Right Stuff for Google’s $30M Moon Shot

Ten teams from around the world have signed up to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, a robotic race to to the moon with a US$30 million purse.

The basic rules are simple: Teams will compete to be the first to land a privately funded robotic craft on the moon, have it tool around on the surface for at least 500 meters and send images, video and data back to Earth. As far as the contest is concerned, the robot’s trip is a one-way vacation — no need to get the bot back to our blue planet.

Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, announced the teams at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Thursday.

“I’m very pleased to welcome our first 10 fully registered teams to the Google Lunar X Prize. Only 6 months after the announcement of this competition, the response has been incredible — we’ve received over 560 expressions of interest from more than 53 nations. By comparison, at the 6 month point of the Ansari X Prize we had only 2 teams registered,” Diamandis said.

The Ansari X Prize was a previous contest in which companies raced to put the first reusable manned commercial spacecraft into space.

“I think we’re going to see an exciting and very competitive race to the Moon, highlighted by some very creative designs unlike anything we’ve seen come out of the government space programs. Many of these teams represent some of the most creative and entrepreneurial minds in space exploration today,” Diamandis added.

Expensive Challenge

Despite the cash prize, some estimates put the cost of getting a robot to the moon in the $100 million range, though some teams will certainly point their bots toward the moon with much smaller budgets. A first-place finish will take home $20 million, while a second place finish will garner $5 million. The remaining $5 million is earmarked for bonus prizes.

The X Prize Foundation has also announced that Space Florida will be a new preferred partner and the first preferred launch site for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition. While competitors can launch from any other legal location on the planet, Space Florida is offering an additional $2 million to the grand prize winner if the winner launches its flight from the facilities in Florida.

Space Florida was created by the Florida legislature to promote the state as a global leader in space exploration and commerce. NASA, which has facilities in Florida, isn’t a sponsor of the event, but the X Prize Foundation expects that NASA will learn from any advancements the competing teams bring to space travel and lunar landings.

But When?

“When we were first designing the Google Lunar X Prize, we expected that the first serious attempts to win would probably occur in 2011 or so,” William Pomerantz, director of space projects for the X Prize Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.

“However, we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the number of teams that have signed up already, and by the number of them who are approaching the contest with very ambitious schedules. It is entirely possibly we could see a winning mission launch in the next two years,” he added.

If competing teams run into problems, they don’t have an infinite amount of time to make it to the moon. The Grand Prize is $20 million until Dec. 31, 2012, but it will drop to $15 million if the winning launch starts between 2013 and Dec. 31, 2014. If nobody has won at that point, Google and the X Prize Foundation may opt to terminate the competition.

The X Prize Foundation

Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation in 1995 after reading “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh, the adventurer who won a prize for being the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo by aircraft. His journey helped spur the development of longer commercial airline flights. The X Prize Foundation was born as a nonprofit designed to conceive and manage large-incentive prizes for the benefit of humanity.

The previous notable X Prize Foundation contest was the $10 million Ansari X Prize space competition for launching a manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. Scaled Composites’ Tier One won the contest in 2004 with a craft designed by Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen. The Ansari X Prize was aimed at spurring the development of low-cost spaceflight.

The Ten Teams

The ten teams currently competing are:

  • Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association (ARCA): Based in Valcea, Romania, and led by Dumitru Popescu, ARCA was also a contender in the Ansari X Prize. Two of ARCA’s most innovative projects to date have been the Demonstrator 2B rocket and Stabilo, a two-stage manned suborbital air-launched vehicle. The craft they plan to enter in the Google Lunar X Prize will be called the “European Lunar Explorer.”
  • Astrobotic: Team Astrobotic, led by Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, was formed to coordinate the efforts of Carnegie Mellon University, Raytheon Company and additional institutions. One of Carnegie Mellon’s specialties is autonomous navigation through stereo vision and other technologies. This enables Carnegie Mellon’s robots to automatically avoid obstacles and select their own route across unmapped terrain. Astrobotic will compete for the prize using their Artemis Lander and Red Rover.
  • Chandah: Chandah, meaning “Moon” in Sanskrit, was founded by Adil Jafry, an energy industry entrepreneur. He is now chairman and CEO of Tara, the largest independent retail electricity provider in Texas. Jafry’s goal is to catalyze commercialization of space and bring advances in space travel, tourism, sciences and technology to the general public at large. Team Chandah’s spacecraft will be named “Shehrezade.”
  • FredNet: Headed by Fred J. Bourgeois III, this multinational team is comprised of systems, software and hardware developers who serve as the leaders and overall coordinators of an international group of open source developers, engineers and scientists. Their goal is to bring the same successful approach used in developing major software systems (such as the Internet and Linux) to bear on the problems associated with space exploration and research.
  • LunaTrex: Led by Pete Bitar, LunaTrex is comprised of several individuals, companies and universities from all over the United States, some of whom were also competitors for the Ansari X Prize. Each team member brings their own history to the mix: rocket science, high-altitude near-space R&D, defense directed-energy technology, aviation design and development, robotics, trajectories and non-conventional propulsion expertise. The name of their competing craft will be “Tumbleweed.”
  • Micro-Space: Helmed by Richard Speck and based in Colorado, Micro-Space has a 31-year history of producing world-class, high tech products. Since focusing on the development of spaceflight systems, they have flown 17 innovative, bipropellant liquid fuel rockets, three near-hover rockets with vectored thrust guidance, scores of flights with telemetry and radio tracking, and several innovative life support systems. Micro-Space has been a competitor in the Ansari X Prize as well as the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Their “Human Lunar Lander” will compete for Google Lunar X Prize.
  • Odyssey Moon: The first team to register for the competition, Odyssey Moon is a private commercial lunar enterprise headquartered in the Isle of Man and founded by Dr. Robert Richards. Odyssey Moon’s business plans are actively in development for a series of missions to the moon during the International Lunar Decade in support of science, exploration and commerce. Their Google Lunar X Prize craft is titled “MoonOne (M-1).”
  • Quantum3: A U.S.-based team, Quantum3 is led by Paul Carliner, a senior executive in the aerospace industry. They propose to field a small spacecraft launched from an East Coast range using launch-coast-burn trajectory for a propulsive soft landing on the surface of the moon at the Sea of Tranquility. Quantum3 is taking a partnership approach to the mission, utilizing the unique capabilities of the private sector and academic communities. Their craft will be called “Moondancer.”
  • Southern California Selene Group: According to team leader Harold Rosen, the approach taken by the Santa Monica, Calif., Selene Group can be succinctly summarized as “an elegantly simple design that is relatively inexpensive to implement.” The architecture for their “Spirit of Southern California” spacecraft will combine the control and communication systems used in some of the earliest communications satellites with the latest in electronic and sensor technology.
  • Team Italia: Based in Italy and led by Prof. Amalia Ercoli-Finzi, Team Italia is a collaboration between several universities. The team is currently running a prototype of its system at Politecnico di Milano. The architecture of the robotic system is under study: a single big rover or a colony of many robots, light and mobile, with many legs and wheels, able to be compacted in the lander and distributed quickly on the Moon’s surface with cameras and sensory support.

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