February 21, 2008 3:30 PM PST

Google lunar challenge gets under way

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."

See more CNET content tagged:
moon, Sergey Brin, robot, robotics, Google Inc.

5 comments

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$20M?
Well i admit I don't know the rules of this contest, but it would
seem like you would want a tracking system that works as the
Earth rotates. I'm guessing you can't even purchase the land for
$20M much less construct even a single 26m antenna.

Further, it would seem like you might want to have landing site
data, so you know where it's safe to land. Being totally
commercial and all that, they certainly wouldn't think of using
Lunar Orbiter or Apollo images of the surface. No, they'll need
to gather that data independently . With their own imaging
missions. That might just cost more than $20m too.

I do have an agenda here. And that is, in my opinion, the
commercial guys achieve a goal, and instantly point to how they
did it faster and cheaper than NASA. Well the simple fact is, they
stand on the shoulders of giants, and they thumb their noses at
the people who have enabled their achievements.

And, oh yeah, before anyone could really claim the prize, they
should be in a position to demonstrate the lunar surface is
stable and will support the weight of a landing spacecraft. In
commercial land, that's unknown. As is virtually every skill
needed to travel to and land on the moon.
Posted by Gary Treible (10 comments )
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Should not be so expensive.
From what I've seen of the designs so far, all these teams want to build a Ferrari [to get to the corner store], when a bicycle will do.
Seriously, it's NASA's million dollar pen all over again. Are there any engineers out there who remember how to work without monster budgets?
Posted by Marcus Westrup (630 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Fantastic-Great News from Google
I was wondering why Google Admin came to our webpage below on; 21/Feb/2008:16:08:56 (3:08 pm CST).

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.bccmeteorites.com/misconduct-planetary.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.bccmeteorites.com/misconduct-planetary.html</a>

They want to make sure they have the right people on the project I guess. Now give us the list of all participants please.

Cordially,
S. Ray DeRusse
www.bccmeteorites.com
Posted by BCCM (23 comments )
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wow... who cares
obviously that guy that claims it was his idea didn't front the money so therefore WHO CARES
Posted by rnieves1977 (105 comments )
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Can anybody seriously "thumb their nose" at the work that has gone on before? The ground work has been laid with a lot of hard work and money. Now comes the fun stuff. I have personally launched rockets over 36 feet tall and scratch built rockets that went through the sound barrier, and it was a piece of cake because the math was all done back in the 50s. All I had to do was plug in numbers. Yeah, I stood on the shoulder of giants and I love the view! (Thank you NASA)
Posted by MarkAdkins (1 comment )
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