A Google Competition, With a Robotic Moon Landing as a Goal

Google is offering $30 million in prizes for the first two teams to land a robotic rover on the moon and send images and other data back home.

For those who’ve not been following the Google Lunar X Prize, the NY Times has a bit of an update.

At Google’s headquarters here on Thursday, 10 teams from five countries announced their intention to participate in the competition. They include a team led by William L. Whitaker, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and renowned roboticist; an affiliation of four universities and two major aerospace companies in Italy; and one group that is a loose association of engineers coordinating their efforts online.

…Addressing the X Prize teams and journalists, Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, compared his company’s support of the competition with other companies’ sponsorship of yacht races. “The idea we can help spur the return to the moon and maybe even do it more quickly than some of the national plans is really exciting to me,” Mr. Brin said.

Google will pay $20 million to the first team that lands on the moon, sends a package of data back to Earth, then travels at least 500 meters and sends another data package. The second team to accomplish the goals will win $5 million. Bonuses are offered for feats like visiting a historic landing site and finding and detecting lunar ice, but the prize money starts to shrink if the mission is not accomplished by 2012.

Dr. Whitaker of Carnegie Mellon is leading a team that includes the University of Arizona and Raytheon, the military contractor. He said he planned to use kerosene and oxygen to fuel his rocket, and once it is on the moon, to send a rover to the site of the first moon landing in the Sea of Tranquillity. “Our extravaganza will be at Apollo 11,” he said.

One interesting comment at the event came from Harold Rosen — who clearly does not think the prospects for orbital solar power stations are good:

There was some discord at the event. A video produced by the X Prize Foundation, promoting reasons to revisit the moon, described the mining of silicon, which is abundant in the lunar soil. The video claimed that the material could be used in space to construct solar-powered satellites that would transmit cheap and abundant energy to Earth.

In a question-and-answer session, Dr. Harold A. Rosen, an inventor of the geostationary satellite who is heading his own X Prize team, called that claim “one of the most outrageous ideas I’ve ever heard.” He added: “I can think of about a hundred thousand more efficient ways of getting energy on Earth than that.”

William Pomerantz, Director, Space Projects at the X Prize Foundation did a short video covering the ten-team announcement. BTW, Pomerantz is the moderator of the Google Lunar X PRIZE Community Forums.

There was no mention of Team Cringely, Bob Cringely’s effort to compete for the prize on a fraction of, e.g., the Carnegie Mellon budget. I don’t know what to make of Bob’s project — when he first announced I thought it was wacky.

An efficient source for tracking developments of the Google Lunar X Prize and all the many other space prizes, try the Space Prizes Blog. And the SF Chronicle has a short first person report.

Santa Cruz software consultant Fred Bourgeois III represented the hacker-hippie element of the tech community with his Team FredNet. It will rely on the concept of “open source” engineering – that is, throwing ideas out to a community of interested participants who will be encouraged to trouble-shoot and improve designs offered by the core team.

“We intend to create a rover slightly larger than the typical cell phone,” Bourgeois said, adding that the team hopes eventually to deploy a network of these mini-rovers on asteroids to gather signals from deep space.