X Prize Announces Lunar Landing Challenge

Google is putting up $30 million dollars to sponsor a new contest. To win the grand prize, you have to put a privately funded robotic rover on the moon.

You can get bonus prizes if your rover discovers ice or takes photos of human artifacts, like equipment left by the Apollo astronauts.

Peter Diamandis runs the X PRIZE Foundation. It tries to spur the development of new technology by putting up big cash prizes.

A few years ago, it offered the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for the first privately funded spaceflight. SpaceShipOne, a white vehicle painted with blue stars, made two brief trips to space and back — and won the prize.

"And after that, we were looking to see where do we go next," Diamandis says. "And in the space realm, what was clear to us was, really were two objectives: One is an orbital X PRIZE and the second was a lunar X PRIZE."

Diamandis decided to first aim for the moon and he got Google to put up the prize money.

"To win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a team has to build, design, launch and then soft-land on the moon a robotic rover, and then be able to rove — to maneuver around — for about a half a kilometer, 500 meters," Diamandis explains.

There are other requirements, too. Like, the rover has to do a mooncast, sending back images to Earth.

There's a $20 million grand prize. Second prize is worth $5 million, and there's $5 million in bonus prizes for things like getting your rover to survive a frigid lunar night.

But if you want to go for it, you'd better act fast — Diamandis says it all has to happen before Dec. 31, 2014.

"I have very little doubt that it will happen," he says. "I think that we will have a winner within four years."

Executives at Google seem to agree.

"We're optimistic that we will have a lunar landing by the time this prize is done," says Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, in a video prepared for Thursday's announcement at Wired Magazine's NextFest held in Los Angeles.

The video shows him against a backdrop of the moon's dusty, grey surface. The blue Earth is just over his shoulder. He says Google has been impressed at how the X PRIZE Foundation has already been making things happen.

"So now we are here today embarking upon this great adventure of having a commercial organization — nongovernmental — make an exploration to the moon," Brin says.

It has been decades since Russia and the United States landed scientific probes on the moon's surface. Several countries are now interested in new missions to the moon.

For example, Japan is about to launch a moon orbiter and NASA plans to send an orbiting probe next year.

"But right now, there really isn't a lunar lander," says Pete Worden, head of the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He's been speaking a lot with the people from X PRIZE about their robotic race to the moon.

"So this could be kind of the first message from Earth in many decades that actually lands on the moon," Worden says.

Worden predicts a lot of interest from the private sector because if a company shows it can get a rover on the moon cheaply, NASA or other countries might suddenly become potential customers. And, the winner would get bragging rights.

"It's just the excitement of having the private sector now for the first time touch another planet," Worden says. "That's a pretty neat concept and I think it's going to kick off a real excitement."

The X PRIZE Foundation says it will be opening up registration for teams immediately. They expect to get at least half a dozen entries in the next few months.

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