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Private race to the moon (and money) takes off

Officials unveil nine new privately funded teams that will compete for $30 million in Google's race to the moon.
Image: An artist's view of the \"Moondancer\" lander/rover at the Sea of Tranquility
An artist's view of the \"Moondancer\" lander/rover at the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 touched down in 1969. Quantum3, the spacecraft's designer, hopes to win the top Google Lunar X PRIZE Cup purse.Quantum3 / Google Lunar X PRIZE
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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 during Thursday's announcement here at Google's headquarters. "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. The nine new teams join the Isle of Man-based 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 who attended the press conference. "We had no such expectation."

Brin credited Google's participation to conversation he had had with Diamandis and mutual friend and Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-rocket builder, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX.

Large companies often invest money in entertainment ventures or sponsor competitions and competitors in events like boat races, Brin said. But those ventures are limited in their purpose.

"We should be doing new kinds of things as companies," Brin said. "If we're going to sponsoring things it should be for discoveries."

Image: An artist's view of the \"Moondancer\" lander/rover at the Sea of Tranquility
An artist's view of the \"Moondancer\" lander/rover at the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 touched down in 1969. Quantum3, the spacecraft's designer, hopes to win the top Google Lunar X PRIZE Cup purse.

"The folks at Space Florida are really offering to enhance the prize purse at a significant level," Brett Alexander, executive director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation, told "It lowers the bar and makes it easier for teams to compete."

Steve Kohler, Space Florida president, said that launching a commercial spacecraft to the moon from Florida would add to the state's rich spaceflight history as home to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"Florida's long been recognized as a preeminent leader in any activity that involves our exploration of the moon," Kohler said. "Part of our effort as a state and as an organization is to continue that legacy. We believe (this competition) will allow the state to become a future hub for commercial projects."

According to Google Lunar X Prize rules, 90 percent 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 Dec. 31, 2012, will snatch the $20 million grand prize. In 2013, the first-place purse drops to $15 million, and the program will expire on Dec. 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.

On top of the potential to win $25 million with a single launch, Alexander explained that Space Florida's extra funding is quite an incentive — especially to a number of teams aiming for a 2009 or 2010 launch.

"A million dollars is not trivial to any one of these teams, let alone 2 million dollars," Alexander said. "I definitely think somebody's going to make it and I think it's going to happen earlier than we expect."

Bring it on
Odyssey Moon, a team based out of Europe's Isle of Man, was announced as the first competitor in December 2007. The group is hopeful their "MoonOne (M-1)" spacecraft will take the grand prize.

The nine new teams officially drafted into the competition have submitted lengthy applications and $1,000 deposits.

"To have 10 teams now, so early on, is incredible and great," Alexander said, noting that the 1996-to-2004 Ansari X Prize for suborbital spaceflight took years — not a few months — to attract as many teams. "We thought it would take longer for people to organize and get entered into this competition."

"The fact that there are this many teams (competing) does give us some confidence that someone should be able to prevail at the end of the day," Kohler said of the numbers, which he explained will inevitably grow before the Dec. 31, 2010, application cutoff.

The new competitors include:

  • Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association (ARCA): This Romanian group competed in the Ansari X Prize and will enter their "European Lunar Explorer" in the new competition.
  • Astrobotic: Headed by William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University, the team expects their "Artemis Lander" and "Red Rover" spacecraft to touch down first on the moon.
  • Chandah: Adil Jafry leads this team as chairman and CEO of Tara, the largest independent retail electricity provider in Texas. Chendah's spacecraft is called "Shehrezade."
  • FREDNET: Developers, engineers and scientists make up FREDNET, headed by Fred Bourgeois III, president and CEO of Applios Inc.
  • LunaTrex: A mix of U.S. rocket, robotics, aviation, energy and propulsion experts, the LunaTrex team led by Peter Bitar (founder of Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems) is entering "Tumbleweed" into the competition.
  • Micro-Space: Richard Speck of Micro-Space, Inc. and his team hopes their "Human Lunar Lander" will secure the grand prize.
  • Quantum3: This team intends to land "Moondancer" at the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 — the first manned moon mission — touched down in 1969.
  • Southern California Selene Group: Their "Spirit of Southern California" spacecraft will rely on early communications satellite technology along with the latest developments in electronics and sensors.
  • Team Italia: This Italian group intends to launch a colony of light, mobile robots on a lander for quick distribution on the Moon's surface.

Alexander said the 10 challengers now entered in the Google Lunar X Prize Cup aren't participating just for show.

"I'd say that the teams out there have a high degree of credibility," he said. "Several of them are really off and running full-steam ahead already."