The Polaris lunar rover is designed to prospect for water ice on the moon.
updated 11/20/2012 3:32:00 PM ET 2012-11-20T20:32:00

A private race to the moon with robotic probes may kick off a lunar "water rush" that helps humanity explore asteroids, Mars and other deep-space destinations, some scientists say.

The 25 privately funded teams competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize may perform vital prospecting work that will lay the foundation for large-scale exploitation of moon water, leading to cheaper and more efficient space exploration, the idea goes.

"This is like the gold rush that led to the settlement of California," Phil Metzger, a physicist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in a statement. "This is the water rush."

The lure of lunar water
The Google Lunar X Prize is an international challenge to land a robot on the moon's surface, have it travel at least 1,650 feet (500 meters) and send data and images back to Earth. [Meet the Google Lunar X Prize Teams (Gallery)]

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The first privately funded team to do all of this will receive the $20 million grand prize. An additional $10 million is set aside for second place and various special accomplishments, such as detecting water, bringing the prize's total purse to $30 million.

NASA and other space agencies are particularly interested in the water-detection part of the challenge. They hope the teams — such as one led by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology Inc. — help ground-truth observations made from orbit, which have spotted water ice in craters near the lunar poles.

"We really need to get vehicles on the surface of the moon prospecting to characterize those deposits, like how do they vary spatially, how do they vary with depth?" Metzger said.

Moon water could be used for much more than just slaking astronauts' thirst. Split into its component hydrogen and oxygen, it could also provide air for them to breathe and — perhaps most importantly — propellant for their spaceships, which could refuel at orbiting "gas stations."

"There have been studies that have shown you can reduce the mass of a mission to Mars by a factor of somewhere between three and five if you get propellants from the space environment rather than launching them all from Earth," Metzger said.

Launching soon
In April, Astrobotic signed a contract with NASA to continue to develop technologies the space agency may use to harvest space resources in the future. And the company's X Prize plans are coming along; Astrobotic aims to launch a lander and rover to the moon on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in less than three years.

"Our intent is to land on the surface of the moon in October 2015 and find water," said Astrobotic President John Thornton.

Astrobotic will test its rover and tools in a special bin of simulated lunar soil at Kennedy Space Center.

"You have to be able to go to the moon with some confidence that your vehicle's going to be able to get around and to dig in the soil," Thornton said.

The fact that so many other teams are vying to beat Astrobotic to the moon shows that the potential to find and exploit lunar resources is real, he added.

"If we were doing something really big and no one else was trying to do it, then it might not be that big," Thornton said.

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Explainer: Teams reach for the moon

  • Image: Rover at X Prize announcement
    X Prize Foundation

    The Google Lunar X Prize is a $30 million competition that calls upon teams to land a robot on the moon safely, send it on a trek of at least 500 meters over the lunar surface, and beam images and data back to Earth. The prize program expires at the end of 2015.

    Click through our interactive to see the concepts being considered by 25 teams in the competition.

  • Angelicum


    Angelicum Chile, headquartered in Santiago, was formed by aerospace and satellite engineers with experience in national space programs developed in cooperation with international space companies (Surrey, Astrium and others) and global entrepreneurs. Team leader is Klaus von Storch Kruger, and the name of their spacecraft is Dandelium.

  • ARCA

    Image: European Lunar Explorer
    ARCA via X Prize Foundation

    Romania's ARCA group is offering a spherical concept called ELE, or European Lunar Explorer. The team's leader is Dumitru Popescu, a veteran of the Ansari X Prize competition for private suborbital spaceflight.

  • Astrobotic


    Red Rover rolls through a test conducted by Astrobotic Technology, the team that wants to send it to the moon. Astrobotic coordinates the efforts of Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions under the leadership of William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics expert at CMU.

  • Barcelona Moon Team

    Barcelona Moon Team

    Barcelona Moon Team is a multidisciplinary joint venture bringing together Spanish entrepreneurial, industrial and academic capabilities. The team's leader is Xavier Claramunt, president of Galactic Suite Moonrace.

  • Euroluna

    Image: ROMIT

    The ROMIT rover rolls around the lunar surface in this artist's conception. Euroluna (European Lunar Exploration Association) is headquartered in Denmark and is led by Palle Haastrup. Team members range in age from their teens to their 60s.

  • FredNet

    Team Frednet

    Team FredNet's is consideringseveral concepts for its lander, rover and launch vehicle. The team's leader is Fred J. Bourgeois III, an aerospace engineer and software consultant.

  • Independence-X

    Image: ILR-1

    Malaysia-based Independence-X Aerospace proposes sending this ILR-1 rover to the moon, in partnership with Universiti Teknologi MARA and the Malaysian Entrepreneurs Development Center. The team leader is Mohd Izmir Yamin.

  • Team Indus

    Team Indus

    Team Indus, headquartered in New Delhi, India, seeks to represent the aspirations of one of the world's oldest civilizations and youngest population. The team plans to launch its rover on an Indian PSLV rocket. Team leader is Rahul Narayan.


    Image: JOLHT

    The Juxtopia Urban Robotics Brilliant Application National challenge brings together professional and student engineers, with the aim of sending a JOLHT lunar craft to the moon's surface. The team leader is Jayfus T. Doswell.

  • Moon Express

    Moon Express

    Selected by Forbes as one of the "Names You Should Know" in 2011, Moon Express is a privately funded lunar transportation and data services company based at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley. The venture's president and CEO is Bob Richards.

  • Odyssey Moon

    Image: MoonOne lander
    Odyssey Moon via X Prize

    The MoonOne lander fires its thrusters as it nears the lunar surface in this concept artwork from Odyssey Moon. The team, led by Rick Sanford, was the first to join the Google Lunar X Prize competition.

  • Omega Envoy

    Omega Envoy

    Omega Envoy's lander would be built by Earthrise Space, a not-for-profit organization founded by students and professionals in Central Florida, under the leadership of Ruben Nunez.

  • Part-Time Scientists

    Part-Time Scientists

    The Asimov 1 lander is being developed by Germany-based Part-time Scientists. The nonprofit group is led by Robert Bohme.

  • Penn State Lunar Lion Team

    Penn State Lunar Lion Team

    The Penn State Lunar Lion Team is made up of Penn State students and faculty, along with engineers from Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory.  Team leader is Michael V. Paul.

  • Team Phoenicia

    Team Phoenicia

    Team Phoenicia’s lander/rover combination will piggyback on a communications satellite launch to geosynchronous orbit as a “hosted payload.” From there, the lander will separate from the parent craft and make a burn to insert itself into a transit orbit to a direct landing on the lunar south pole. The team's leader is William P. Baird.

  • Plan B

    Plan B

    "Plan B" is an initiative from the privately funded Canadian company Adobri Solutions Ltd. The team is thinking about delivering a hockey puck to the lunar surface for a symbolic face-off. Team leader is Alex Dobrianski.

  • Team Puli

    Team Puli

    Team Puli is a group of young Hungarian professionals and space enthusiasts, named after the Puli, a dog-breed long used by shepherds for the protection and guidance of livestock in Hungary. The team leader is Tibor Pacher.

  • Rocket City Space Pioneers

    Rocket City Space Pioneers

    The Alabama-based Rocket City Space Pioneers team is made up of Dynetics, Teledyne Brown Engineering, Andrews Space, Spaceflight Services, Draper Laboratory, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Moog, the University of Alabama Huntsville, and the Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation. Team leader is Tim Pickens.

  • Selenokhod


    Team Selenokhod is the only Russian team in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The team name is derived from Lunokhod — the name of the 1970s Soviet space rovers. Team leader is Nikolay Dzis-Voynarovskiy.

  • Team SpaceIL

    Team SpaceIL

    Team SpaceIL, the only Israeli group entered in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, aims to send its Sparrow lander to the lunar surface, as shown here. Team leader is Yariv Bash.

  • SpaceMETA


    SpaceMETA is a Brazil-based team founded by Sergio Cabral Cavalcanti. Team members include Brazilians with experince in the world of startups and innovation.

  • Stellar

    Image: Stellar lander
    Team Stellar

    The Stellar Eagle lander rolls on the lunar surface in this artist's conception. The team is led by Keith Goeller.

  • Synergy Moon

    Image: Tesla Rover
    Synergy Moon

    The Tesla rover rolls around the moon in this artist's conception from Synergy Moon. The team, led by Miroslav Ambruskis, includes representatives from InterPlanetary Ventures, the Human Synergy Project and Interorbital Systems.

  • Team Italia

    Image: Team Italia concept
    Team Italia via X Prize Foundation

    This is one of the concepts under consideration for Team Italia's AMALIA rover. AMALIA stands for "Ascensio Machinae Ad Lunam Italica Arte" (Latin that roughly translates into "The Ascent of a Machine to the Moon Through Italian Skill"). The name also pays tribute to the team leader, Italian professor Amalia Ercoli-Finzi.

  • White Label Space

    Image: White Label rover
    White Label Space

    White Label Space's rover rolls across the moon in an artist's rendering. The international group's headquarters is in the Netherlands, and its leader is Steve Allen.


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