Google Puts Its Money on the Moon

Less than a month after it launched Sky in Google Earth with astronomical images from around the universe, Google announced on Thursday that it is taking its space fascination a step further by sponsoring a contest to fly to the moon.

Offered in partnership with the X Prize Foundation, best known for the US$10 million Ansari X Prize for private suborbital spaceflight, the Google Lunar X Prize is offering $30 million in prizes to private companies that can land a robotic rover on the moon, roam the surface, and transmit data back to Earth. The goal is to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration, Google said.

“The Google Lunar X Prize calls on entrepreneurs, engineers and visionaries from around the world to return us to the lunar surface and explore this environment for the benefit of all humanity,” said Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. “We are confident that teams from around the world will help develop new robotic and virtual presence technology, which will dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration.”

Three Prizes

The $30 million prize purse is segmented into three components. To win the $20 million Grand Prize, a team must successfully soft-land a privately funded spacecraft on the moon, rove on the lunar surface for at least 500 meters, and transmit a specific set of video, images and data back to Earth.

The $5 million Second Prize will be awarded to a team that can land a spacecraft on the moon, rove and transmit data back to Earth.

Bonus prizes will be awarded to teams that successfully complete additional mission tasks such as roving distances longer than 5,000 meters; imaging man-made artifacts on the moon, such as hardware leftover from Apollo; discovering water ice; or surviving through a frigid lunar night, which lasts approximately 14.5 Earth days.

After Dec. 31, 2012, the Grand Prize will drop to $15 million until Dec. 31, 2014, at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X Prize Foundation. The second place prize will be available until the end of 2014, unless extended.

Lunar Potential

Twelve men explored the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating with the mission in 1972 by Apollo 17. By launching this new challenge, Google aims to begin “Moon 2.0,” the next phase of lunar exploration — and “this time we will go to the moon to stay,” it said. Possible benefits of lunar exploration include solutions to environmental problems such as energy dependence and climate change, the company added.

“Why does Google love space? Well, for one thing, we just think it’s cool,” wrote Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering, on the official Google blog. “More seriously, space exploration has a remarkable history of producing technological breakthroughs, from ablative heat shields and asteroid mining to invisible braces and Tang; the X-Prize, too, could lead to important developments in robotic space exploration, a whole host of new space-age materials, precision landing control technology, and who knows what else.

“Finally, we hope the contest will help renew public interest in fields like math, engineering and computer science, especially among the young people on whom we’ll all be depending to tackle tomorrow’s technical challenges, whether they’re on the web or among the stars,” Eustace said.

Global Participation

“Having Google fund the purse and title the competition punctuates our desire for breakthrough approaches and global participation,” Diamandis said. “By working with the Google team, we look forward to bringing this historic private space race into every home and classroom. We hope to ignite the imagination of children around the world.”

Strategic alliances involved in the competition include Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is offering competing teams an in-kind contribution and is the first preferred launch provider for this competition; the Allen Telescope Array, operated by the SETI Institute, which will serve as a preferred downlink provider for communications from the moon to the Earth; the Saint Louis Science Center, which serves as the Foundation’s official education partner; and the International Space University, based in Strasbourg, France, which will conduct international team outreach and facilitate an unbiased judging committee.

“This may help some existing commercial lunar projects get funding,” James Oberg, a retired rocket scientist who is now an author and full-time media consultant, told TechNewsWorld. “It may help Russian commercial launch services, too — the Dnepr (rocket) looks about the right size for this kind of payload, and it’s a bargain.”

‘Definitely Interested’

Indeed, at least one private commercial space company is already interested.

“This is a great program, and last night I sent a request for information about how to submit a team,” Geoff Sheerin, president and CEO of PlanetSpace, told TechNewsWorld.

PlanetSpace is in the process of building an orbital vehicle, and plans to make space flight available to the public within 24 months. “We’re definitely interested,” Sheerin said.

A Daunting Challenge

Potential benefits aside, though, the challenge is a daunting one, Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, told TechNewsWorld.

“If you want to put one pound of rover on the moon, it will cost you roughly 210 pounds of rocket on Earth to get it off the ground,” Czysz explained. “What that means is that even a small rover will take a pretty big liftoff mass here, and it has to be staged,” so that pieces are jettisoned one by one.

Vehicles traveling to the moon can either orbit it first, as U.S. missions have done, or they can make a direct shot and land immediately, Csysz added. Both approaches have pros and cons, but one challenge either way is that any vehicle must not only get close to the moon, it must also be able to slow down and land in one piece so that the roving and data transmission can be done.

Orbiting the moon first allows a more precise selection of a landing site, but even then, human navigation has historically been needed, Czysz said. “When Neil Armstrong did the first landing, he was heading toward the edge of a crater and had to manually re-fly to be able to land on something flat,” he explained. “It’s really quite an issue — if you’re not careful, you might end up at the bottom or on the edge of a crater.”

The Right Stuff

Robotic vehicles that compete in the Lunar X Prize won’t have the benefit of human intervention, he noted.

The cost of success, Czysz estimates, will come in at a minimum of $300 million, far outweighing the value of the resulting prize.

What will it take to make it happen? “A bunch of people who are driven to experiment and to try things that other people say can’t be done,” Czysz concluded.

In other words, with the right stuff, it just might happen.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

More by Katherine Noyes
More in Space

Technewsworld Channels