GOLDEN, Colo. — Silicon Valley giant Google Inc. is teaming with the X Prize Foundation to launch a commercial race to the Moon with $30 million in incentives to collect along the way.
The X Prize Foundation, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., spearheaded the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which was created to jumpstart the development of private commercial transportation to suborbital space. That prize was won by Scaled Composites of California, which now is building a commercial version of its winning vehicle for entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Corp.
The Google Lunar X Prize sets the competition bar much higher than suborbital space.
“This next major X Prize has a mission that goes far beyond suborbital flight, and extends the economic sphere of humanity 10 times farther beyond geostationary Earth orbit … all the way to the Moon,” said Peter Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation’s chairman and chief executive officer. “This competition will once again demonstrate that small teams of dedicated individuals can do what was once thought viable only by governments.”
The goal of the new prize will be to land a privately funded robotic rover on the Moon that is capable of completing several mission objectives, such as: roaming the lunar surface to a distance of at least 500 meters and relaying video, images and data back to Earth.
The X Prize Foundation and Google Inc. announced the international competition Sept. 13 during Wired magazine’s NextFest festival in Los Angeles, which ran Sept. 13-16.
During the press conference, Google co-founder SergieBrin noted that many companies now sponsor events or buy naming rights to things like sports venues to market and support their brand. “I thought if we were ever to sponsor something it should be something ambitious,” he said. “As I got to talking to people about it I realized that something like a lunar landing was quite achievable and in fact financially on par with some of the other kinds of things that traditional companies do.”
The vision behind the concept – also dubbed Moon 2.0 as the second era of lunar exploration – is to have small, robotic lunar explorers take the first commercial steps toward opening what the organizers believe to be a multibillion dollar market for utilizing space resources beyond Earth, Diamandis said. “We don’t care where you’re from, what you’ve ever done, where you went to school … if you can build a rover that lands and roves on the surface of the Moon you will win the Google Lunar X Prize purse.”
According to the summary of the Google Lunar X Prize competition guidelines, the winning team must successfully land a privately funded spacecraft on the lunar surface that survives long enough to complete the mission goals: roaming about the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and sending a defined digital data package – called a “Mooncast” – back to Earth.
The $30 million to be awarded is segmented into a $20 million grand prize, a $5 million second prize and a $5 million bonus.
Contestants have until Dec. 31, 2012, to qualify for the $20 million grand prize, which will drop to $15 million for missions accomplished any time between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2014.
Teams will be required to send a Mooncast detailing their arrival on the lunar surface, and a second Mooncast that provides imagery and video of the journey roaming the lunar surface. Collectively, data sets broadcast from the Moon to the Earth must equal roughly a gigabyte of content.
Several strategic alliances have been established to support the new competition. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of El Segundo, Calif., for example, will give competing teams a 10 percent price reduction on a launch aboard one of its Falcon launch vehicles – identified as “the first preferred launch provider” for the competition in a Google Lunar X Prize press statement released Sept. 13.
Additionally, the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif., will make available its Allen Telescope Array to serve as a preferred downlink provider for communications from the Moon to Earth at no cost to competing teams.
On the educational track, the St. Louis Science Center in Missouri will coordinate a worldwide network of museums and science centers to take part in the contest.
The International Space University, based in Strasbourg, France, will conduct international team outreach and also facilitate the formation of a judging committee.
A Lunar Legacy Program also has been introduced. With a $10 donation to the X Prize Foundation, participants will be allowed to upload a digital photo file and message to the winning Google Lunar X Prize vehicles traveling to the Moon.
“The Google Lunar X Prize will allow every schoolchild, teacher and person on the planet to participate in going back to the Moon in a way that government exploration never could,” said Bretton Alexander, executive director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation in Washington.
Alexander said the competition “harnesses the power and culture of the Internet to allow each of us to watch the development of the teams, send images and videos of ourselves to the lunar surface, and experience being on the Moon with the rovers.”
“Government space agencies around the world will reap the benefits of the Google Lunar X Prize in that they will be able to explore the Moon and beyond much better for far less cost once the private sector becomes a part of exploration,” Alexander said.
For more details on the Google Lunar X Prize, go to: www.googlelunarxprize.org