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Google funds $30 million moon prize

Google is bankrolling a $30 million race for privately funded moon rovers - an endeavor that takes the X Prize to new heights.

The Google Lunar X Prize, announced today by the search-engine giant and the X Prize Foundation at the Wired NextFest in Los Angeles, ranks among the richest contests ever offered for technological innovation. It follows up on the $10 million Ansari X Prize for manned spaceflight, which was won nearly three years ago by the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

BlastOff.com / Diamandis.com
This artist's conception shows a lunar lander
descending to the moon's surface. The concept was
prepared for BlastOff.com, a venture that aimed to
put privately funded rovers on the moon. That
venture went by the wayside, but the idea has been
revived for the Google Lunar X Prize.


The new prize calls upon teams to create autonomous rovers that could land on the moon, travel at least three-tenths of a mile (500 meters) and send video, images and data back to Earth.

The first team to succeed would win $20 million - that is, if the job is done by 2012. After that, the prize drops to $15 million, and if no one is successful by the end of 2014, the money could be withdrawn. If a second team succeeds before the deadline, $5 million would be given as a runner-up prize. Another $5 million would be reserved for bonus tasks - for example, roving for longer distances, taking pictures of old lunar spacecraft, finding water ice or surviving the long lunar night.

The imagery and other data beamed back from the moon would be shared with the world via the Google Lunar X Prize's Web site.

"By working with the Google team, we look forward to bringing this historic private space race into every home and classroom," Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the California-based X Prize Foundation, said in a prepared statement. "We hope to ignite the imagination of children around the world."

Dreams of flight
Google co-founder Sergey Brin said the competition would follow through on some of his own childhood dreams. "Like all kids, I'm somewhat interested in space, but I followed it more in recent years, especially as some of the early Internet pioneers have also turned their attention to space," he said in a video prepared for Thursday's announcement.

At one time, Brin toyed with the idea of mounting a full-fledged lunar lander mission as a Google marketing venture, much as other billionaires might race sailboats or buy sports teams. Brett Alexander, the X Prize Foundation's executive director for space prizes, said Brin mentioned the idea to Diamandis in March during a fund-raising gala. Later that same evening, Diamandis got back to Brin with his proposal for the Google Lunar X Prize.

"At the end of the pitch, Sergey said, 'That's a great idea, let's do it,'" Alexander told me. Larry Page, Google's other co-founder, has likewise been supportive of the X Prize Foundation as a member of its board of trustees.

In addition to the $30 million in prize money, Google is covering a portion of the foundation's  administrative costs, Alexander said.

Follow the money
The idea of a privately funded lunar landing has been kicking around for more than a decade. Diamandis himself was among a group of entrepreneurs at BlastOff.com who worked on such a mission during the dot-com boom. Another company, LunaCorp, tried for years to sell the idea of a corporate-supported lunar rover. Neither of those efforts got off the ground.

The past few years have seen plenty of big-money incentives for innovation as well - not only the Ansari X Prize, but also the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous road vehicles and NASA's Centennial Challenges program. Back in 2004, Nevada billionaire Robert Bigelow offered a $50 million "America's Space Prize" for the first privately funded orbital flight. That particular space race fizzled out, however, when Bigelow determined that no one could make it to orbit by the 2010 deadline while observing a total ban on public funding.

The no-government-funding provision has been softened somewhat for the Google Lunar X Prize. Alexander, a former White House aide, said the competing teams would be limited to receiving no more than 10 percent of their income from government contracts. The competition would also be open to anyone in the world, and not just U.S.-led teams, he said.

Detailed draft rules for the contest would be distributed over the coming weeks for review, eventually leading to the formal registration of X Prize teams, Alexander said. 

NASA vs. the rocketeers?
Alexander saw no conflict between the private-sector prize and NASA's plans for lunar exploration - which call for the launch of a lunar orbiter next year and a progression of robotic missions leading to the first human landing in the 2018 time frame.

"I was at the White House and was involved in writing the Vision for Space Exploration when I was there, so I view this as very complementary," he said.

NASA's deputy administrator, Shana Dale, was due to attend Thursday's NextFest announcement as a signal that the space agency was on board with the X Prize plan. Although NASA would take no role in the X Prize competition, Alexander said officials could conceivably "buy the technology, the system, the mission, the ride or the intellectual property that comes out of all these teams."

"This is not about stopping government exploration," Alexander said. "It's about enhancing it so that we get even more out of exploration."

A little help from their friends
The teams won't be expected to do everything themselves. The X Prize Foundation forged strategic alliances with several partners that could provide the teams with space services:

  • SpaceX says it will offer each team an in-kind contribution that, in effect, represents a 10 percent reduction in the price of a Falcon rocket launch.
  • Universal Space Network will give the teams a 50 percent discount on its tracking, telemetry and control services, for data uplinks as well as downlinks.
  • The Allen Telescope Array, operated by the SETI Institute, will pass along 500 free megabytes of downlinked data from the lunar spacecraft - most likely including the required high-definition TV "mooncasts" sent back after landing and doing 500 meters of roving.

Even with those discounts, is $30 million really enough of an enticement to draw in qualified competitors? That may well be the biggest question surrounding the lunar race. Last year, science-fiction author Jerry Pournelle told me that $50 million was too little to offer for manned orbital flight. But this week, SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, told me he thought an unmanned trip to the moon was eminently doable in that price range.

"They might be able to get this done maybe for $20 million, and they could actually potentially make money with the prize," he said.

Musk said SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 1 could get a payload to the moon, as long as the team's spacecraft was equipped with third-stage capability for entering lunar orbit. "I would just take the same engine I was going to land on the moon with, and add some tanks that you could drop off," he said.

Space synergies
Musk said his current pick to win the prize would be Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, which has spent years developing a succession of rocket prototypes. Led by video-game programmer John Carmack, the Armadillo team is considered the favorite to win the top prize in the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge at next month's Wirefly X Prize Cup, an annual rocket festival in New Mexico.

The SETI Institute's chief executive officer, Thomas Pierson, told me the competition could spark interest in other nongovernmental space ventures, including his institute's efforts to further radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"Everything that NASA has done and tries to do is admirable, and it should be doing it, but I also believe that for a long time our national process did not encourage private space development, and I think it's high time that it's happening," he said.

Jill Tarter, director of the institute's Center for SETI Research, said she hoped the lunar rovers would fire the public's imagination as much as the Mars Pathfinder rover did a decade ago. "This is an outward-looking adventure, and nobody's life is at risk," she said.

Past and future legacies
The X Prize Foundation said it would offer a range of earthly outreach programs to complement the race to the moon - starting with a "Lunar Legacy" service that lets the general public upload digital files for inclusion on the future rovers.

The "send-your-stuff-to-space" concept has become a standard feature for outward-bound spacecraft ranging from NASA's Mars rovers to Bigelow's orbital modules. The nonprofit Planetary Society has organized its own "send your name to the moon" project, with a digitized list of the names due to be placed on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter next year.

NASA

Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke left this plastic-
wrapped photograph of his family on the moon.


Lunar Legacy reaches even further back for precedents, said Lane Soelberg, the X Prize Foundation's vice president of marketing and partnerships. He noted that Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke left behind a plastic-wrapped family portrait when he walked on the moon.

"It's been the only photographic representation of humanity left on the lunar surface," Soelberg told me.

Internet users will be able to upload images and text messages via the Lunar Legacy Web site, for $10 per submission, Soelberg said. Each submission will be limited to 1 megabyte of data, and the files will be reviewed to exclude spam, copyright infringements and offensive material, he said.

Each team making a lunar landing attempt would be required to put the digitized legacies on its spacecraft, encoded on a DVD or perhaps a more advanced type of storage device developed between now and liftoff.

"Details are still being worked out, but we fully intend to broadcast, or 'Mooncast,' a number of our supporters' Legacies back to Earth," Diamandis said in a written introduction to the project. "Which means that one of our Lunar Legacy creators will quite literally be the Neil Armstrong of private space exploration."

Half of the proceeds from the project would be distributed to the competitors, and the other half would go toward the X Prize Foundation's educational activities. The foundation said the Saint Louis Science Center will serve as its education partner and the coordinator for a network of museums and science centers. The International Space University will conduct international team outreach and serve as facilitator for the competition's judging committee.

In his video statement, Google's Brin said the lunar venture would be like no other corporate sponsorship.

"It's really going to accomplish something very, very impressive ... something no commercial entity has ever done and only a couple of governments have ever accomplished, and doing it with modern technology, with the modern imagery, with what I hope to be really incredible results," he said. "And that's the kind of thing that we love to be involved with."

Update for 3:50 p.m. ET Sept. 13: Now that the official announcement is percolating, the reactions are starting to come in. Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center (which is conveniently near Google's Silicon Valley headquarters) tells Reuters that NASA is "kind of an interested bystander" in the lunar X Prize race.

"If a private company perfects a process to get payloads to the moon, NASA will have a lot interest in that," Reuters quotes him as saying.

Meanwhile, I checked with Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack, a veteran of the Ansari X Prize as well as the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, to find out whether he'd enter the Google Lunar X Prize as well. "I am beginning to think about configurations for it, but I can't say it would be a major driver for what I'm doing," he told me.

He said it's a good thing that SpaceX and other service providers are willing to cut a break to would-be lunar rover teams: "Even $30 million is pretty borderline for launching something up to the moon. ... It's definitely a lot harder, relatively, than the original X Prize there. For two to three times the potential award, it's definitely more aggressive there." 

Carmack said the rockets that Armadillo is currently building are "characteristic cousins" to what would be required for a lunar landing, and he could imagine "taking some steps off our path to make some room for this." But he's also focused for the time being on nearer-at-hand ventures - such as a system for space diving, which is a super-extreme variant of skydiving. For now, the moon can wait, at least as far as Carmack is concerned.

"There's no huge hurry on this," he said. "We'll have to see how things go for this in the next couple of years."

In contrast, Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher Red Whittaker wasted no time in announcing that he'll pursue the prize. Whittaker and his colleagues have been working on a wide range of autonomous vehicles over the years, including lunar rover prototypes as well as robo-cars for DARPA's challenges.

"Planetary exploration is a dream we pursue and a technology we create," Whittaker said in a CMU news release. "We have spent decades building and testing robotic technologies for just this purpose. We are also veterans of competitive technology challenges. These are the things we do, so combining lunar rovers with a competitive race to the moon is a great opportunity."

The former Marine said he'd recruit partners to help his team with the various aspects of launch, landing and exploration - and line up sponsors to cover the costs. "Public access, made available through innovative corporate sponsorships, could be a breakthrough feature of the first-ever private robot on another body in space," he said.

Whittaker's team has already set up a Web site to start generating some buzz.

"This challenge is a thrilling thing for space exploration and a thrilling thing for robotics," Whittaker said. "It's inevitable that someone will find a way to win it. Regardless of who takes home the cash, this achievement will enrich us all."