Sunday, February 24, 2008

Private race to the Moon takes off

Google and X Prize officials have unveiled nine new privately funded teams that will compete for $30 million in the Google Lunar X Prize challenge, a race to the moon.

"It’s not just a new mission,” Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said. "It’s a new way of doing business."

The Google Lunar X Prize, unveiled last September, aims to encourage privately funded lunar exploration—just as the $10 million Ansari X Prize provided a jump start for space tourism three years ago.

Private-sector moonshots could open the way to commercial ventures ranging from robotic mining operations to lunar hotels and virtual reality-TV expeditions.

The competition offers a multimillion-dollar prize for the first team to send an unmanned rover safely to the moon, and then get it to beam imagery and data back to Earth. Nine new teams join the Odyssey Moon team, which was the first group to take up the challenge.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said he was amazed that so many competitors had signed up so soon after the prize’s announcement.

"I was floored," Brin told the team members and reporters on Thursday. "We had no such expectation."

The Google Lunar X Prize organisers also announced their partnership with Space Florida, a group vested in drawing the Sunshine State onto the commercial spaceflight map.

Voted into creation in 2006, the local organisation is offering launch site services and $2 million in extra prize money to the winning team if they blast off from Florida.

According to Google Lunar X Prize rules, 90% of a winning team’s funding must come from the private sector to qualify for a piece of $30 million in total prize money.

The first team to land their robot on the moon and complete a gauntlet of tasks with it by December 31, 2012, will snatch the $20 million grand prize. In 2013, the first-place purse drops to $15 million, and the programme will expire on December 31, 2014.

The second team to achieve lunar victory by 2014 will take $5 million in prize money, and another $5 million is on the table for difficult bonus objectives.

Such challenges include moving a robot an extra 1,600 feet, photographing human-made objects on the moon such as the Apollo 11 flag, and surviving more than two weeks in frigid lunar darkness.

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