Private Company Shoots for the Moon

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GOLDEN, Colo. – The private race to get a media savvy rover to the Moon officially started Dec. 6 with the announcement of the first team to qualify for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition.

Odyssey Moon, an enterprise based on the Isle of Man just off the coast of Great Britain, will develop a small robotic lunar lander to gather information about Earth’s crater-pocked neighbor and transmit high-definition video back to Earth.

Odyssey Moon officials revealed Dec. 6 that their prime contractor for the project is MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Canada, which has built a number of pieces of major space hardware, including robotic arms for the space shuttle and the international space station, key technology used for the U.S. Orbital Express Flight Demonstration Mission, and commercial remote sensing radar spacecraft.

Odyssey Moon’s strategy was rolled out Dec. 6 at Space Investment Summit 3, which was held Dec. 5-6 in San Jose, Calif.

“Our team draws upon a substantial amount of business and technology expertise. We totally believe that this is technically feasible,” said Robert Richards, founder and chief executive officer for Odyssey Moon, said in a telephone interview. Roberts also is a director of Optech’s Space Group, located in Ontario, Canada, and in 1987 was one of the cofounders of International Space University.

“We believe there’s going to be a ‘Moon Rush’ … which means that there’s a viable, supportable and sustainable commercial lunar business plan based on markets that we believe exist … and will exist,” Richards said.

The Google Lunar X Prize, which was announced in mid September, is backed financially by Silicon Valley-based Google Inc., working with the X Prize Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif. The competition is intended to give private groups from around the world a financial incentive to land a privately funded robotic rover on the Moon that is capable of completing several mission objectives, including: trekking over the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and transmitting video, images and data back to the Earth.

“I’m very pleased to learn of Odyssey Moon and the talent behind this team. It demonstrates that the starting gun for the private race to the Moon has truly been fired,” said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation. “I am hoping that we will see at least another dozen serious teams from around the Earth announcing their intent to compete in the months ahead.” As evidenced by the high number of registration inquiries received since the Google Lunar X Prize was announced, Diamandis added: “I am confident that the $30 million purse can be won in the 2011-2013 timeframe.”

Lunar business plan

Richards said the Google Lunar X Prize was a catalyst for their plans – but also said the group had been shaping a lunar business strategy and a pathfinder mission to the Moon for over a year. “There’s going to be more and more demand for lower cost, reliable services to get to the Moon,” he predicted.

Richards said science, exploration and technology validation will be the Moon market needs of government entities. “There are ways that the private sector can play a role in helping them do that,” he said.

Richards said there also are ancillary markets for entertainment, education or novelty ideas. “But those are not driving what we see as our business plan. We are an exploration company for lunar commerce.”

Joining Richards in establishing Odyssey Moon is RaminKhadem, a former chief financial officer of Inmarsat, the global mobile satellite communications company. Khadem is chairman of Odyssey Moon.

Odyssey Moon is open to international collaboration at several levels, Richards said, not only for the Google Lunar X Prize but to help shape the company’s long-term business plans for development of the Moon.

The Planetary Society has joined the Odyssey Moon team to assist in education and public involvement, as well as serving as an international and science liaison.

“Our goal is to have our technical baseline [for the lunar hardware] developed by mid-2008, and we’ll have something to show about our technical path perhaps by this coming January,” Richards said. The group’s approach is to create a streamlined, small team with an eye toward winning the Google Lunar X Prize in five years time, he said.

“We have our choice of launchers around the world. We’ll go with the most reliable at the most reasonable cost,” Richards said.

By locating its headquarters in the Isle of Man, Odyssey Moon hopes to take advantage of the island government’s space legislation and tax benefits, Richards said. The country is an internally self-governing dependent territory of the British Crown. It is not part of the United Kingdom but is a member of the British Commonwealth.

When asked what the lunar venture might cost, Richards said he uses the $10 million Ansari X Prize as a yardstick. “On the order of $30 million was spent to win the $10 million [X] prize … so I think the same multiplier is going to be true. You’re looking at a $60 million to $100 million venture. I’d like to see hundreds of millions of dollars of effort going into bringing down the cost of access to the Moon … to bring new innovation into commercial lunar enterprise,” Richards said.

“We want to set the bar very high … and we do intend to win,” Richards concluded.

More details on the Google Lunar X Prize can be found at: http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/lunar