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Google goes to the moon

09/09/2007. Contributed by Jessica Martin

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The X PRIZE Foundation and Google have launched the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a robotic race to the Moon to win a new $30 million prize purse. The Google Lunar X PRIZE aims to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration.

Private companies from around the world will compete to land a privately funded robotic rover on the Moon that is capable of completing several mission objectives, including roaming the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and sending video, images and data back to the Earth.

“The Google Lunar X PRIZE calls on entrepreneurs, engineers and visionaries from around the world to return us to the lunar surface and explore this environment for the benefit of all humanity,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. “We are confident that teams from around the world will help develop new robotic and virtual presence technology, which will dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration. Having Google fund the purse and title the competition punctuates our desire for breakthrough approaches and global participation,” continued Diamandis. “By working with the Google team, we look forward to bringing this historic private space race into every home and classroom. We hope to ignite the imagination of children around the world.”

In the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a historic superpower Moon race, which culminated in 12 men exploring the surface of the Moon. The first era of lunar exploration reached a dramatic conclusion in December of 1972 as Apollo 17 Astronauts Captain Gene Cernan and Dr. Harrison Schmitt became the last men on the Moon.

Moon 2.0, the second era of lunar exploration, will not be a quest for “flags and footprints.” This time we will go to the Moon to stay. The Moon is a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system and a source of solutions to some of the most pressing environmental problems that we face on Earth - energy independence and climate change. Already, governments from around the world recognize the importance of lunar exploration, and national space agencies from the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, and the nations of Europe plan to send probes to the Moon in the coming decade.

Today, the frontier of private enterprise is the halo of communications satellites in geostationary orbit 24,000 miles above our planet. The Google Lunar X PRIZE now challenges private enterprise to reach 10 times beyond its present limits to participate in this great exploration adventure.

The $30 million prize purse is segmented into a $20 million Grand Prize, a $5 million Second Prize and $5 million in bonus prizes. To win the Grand Prize, a team must successfully soft land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, rove on the lunar surface for a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit a specific set of video, images and data back to the Earth. The Grand Prize is $20 million until December 31st 2012; thereafter it will drop to $15 million until December 31st 2014 at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X PRIZE Foundation. To win the Second Prize, a team must land their spacecraft on the Moon, rove and transmit data back to Earth. Second place will be available until December 31st 2014 at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X PRIZE Foundation.

Bonus prizes will be won by successfully completing additional mission tasks such as roving longer distances (> 5,000 meters), imaging man made artifacts (e.g. Apollo hardware), discovering water ice, and/or surviving through a frigid lunar night (approximately 14.5 Earth days). The competing lunar spacecraft will be equipped with high-definition video and still cameras, and will send images and data to Earth, which the public will be able to view on the Google Lunar X PRIZE website.

In a recent Gallup poll, more than two-thirds of Americans (68%) support a return to the Moon, and further missions to points beyond. Some practical benefits to lunar exploration include:

Enabling exploration of the solar system and beyond. Space exploration is expensive because every ounce of propellant and spacecraft must be launched out of the Earth’s strong gravity field. A natural storehouse of materials, lunar soil is more than 40% oxygen by weight and oxygen makes up most of the mass of rocket propellant. Because of its shallower gravity well, the Moon is the stepping stone to the universe.

The Moon can help save the Earth. For more than 30 years, NASA and the US Department of Energy have experimented with ways to capture abundant clean solar energy in space for use on Earth. Although the technology for doing this is well understood, the high cost of launching materials out of the Earth’s deep gravity well has prevented the implementation of these systems. However, if lunar material is used for space construction, clean energy could be supplied on a 24-hour basis without carbon dioxide or other hazards to the biosphere.

We can learn about the Earth’s geologic past. Thanks to the Moon rocks and other information returned by Apollo astronauts, scientists now believe that the Moon was created by a collision between a planet-sized object and the early Earth. By exploring our nearest neighbor we are also exploring a remnant of ancient Earth.

We can see more deeply into space. The Moon provides a large stable platform for astronomical observation unhindered by atmosphere. The far side of the Moon is the one “quiet” place in the Solar System that is shielded from the Earth’s cacophony of radio, television and data broadcasts. The body of the Moon itself provides this shielding, and a radio telescope on the lunar far side can detect energy from the beginning of the universe.

Driving new technologies and devices. The Moon may be the most hostile environment we face in the near future. Surviving and exploring will require major advances in technology. Many of those technologies will also have practical use back home.

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