By Alicia Chang
Friday, September 14, 2007
Google will pay as much as $25 million to the first private company that lands a robotic rover on the moon and sends a gigabyte of images to Earth, the Internet search company said yesterday.
The winner would be the first nongovernmental entity to send a probe to the moon and would boost the emerging private spaceflight industry.
The X Prize Foundation will run the moon challenge, which is open to companies worldwide. The nonprofit institute, based in Santa Monica, Calif., is best known for hosting the Ansari X Prize contest, which led to the first manned private spaceflight in 2004.
A flight to the moon would not be easy or cheap. Teams would have to raise money to build a roaming spacecraft that would be tough enough to survive a landing and be able to complete a set of tasks. Each rover would have to be equipped with high-definition video and still cameras.
The rules call for a spacecraft to travel at least 1,312 feet across the lunar surface and return a package of data including self-portraits, panoramic views and videos. Participants would also be responsible for securing a launch vehicle for the probe, either by building it themselves or contracting with a rocket company.
A company that accomplishes the feat by the end of 2012 would receive $20 million. If there were no winner, the purse would drop to $15 million until the end of 2014, when the offer expires. There is also a $5 million second-place prize and $5 million in bonus money for teams that go beyond the minimum requirements.
The competition comes at a time of revived interest in lunar exploration. Japan's space agency plans to launch its long-delayed orbiter from a Pacific island today. NASA plans next year to send probes to orbit and crash into the moon, the first of several lunar robotic projects before astronauts are sent to the moon in the next decade.
Government lunar missions can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but the X Prize Foundation and Google hope the private sector can do it for considerably less.
Google co-founder Larry Page is a trustee of the X Prize Foundation.
The X Prize Foundation is also holding competitions in rapid genetic decoding and creating super-efficient vehicles, but the moon prize is by far the largest since it was founded in 1995. The Google X Prize is second-richest space prize, after the $50 million offered by hotel magnate Robert T. Bigelow to any U.S. team that can put a manned spacecraft into orbit by 2010.