Reaching for the Moon

Stephen DeAngelis

March 03, 2008

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a contest aimed at sparking innovation. The New York Times reports that Google is teaming with the X Prize Foundation to sponsor a contest to send robots to the moon [“A Google Competition, With a Robotic Moon Landing as a Goal,” by Brad Stone, 22 February 2008]. The X Prize Foundation is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group best known for offering the Ansari X Prize — a race between teams to send a manned rocket craft into suborbital space which was won in 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan. Google and the X Prize Foundation want manmade gear once again exploring the moon.

“More than three decades after the last Apollo astronauts roamed the lunar surface, disparate universities, open-source engineers and quixotic aerospace start-ups are planning to start their own robotic missions to the Earth’s barren cousin. The return to the moon is part of the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition sponsored by Google with $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.”

One would think that the prize money would hardly be enough to cover development costs, but there is apparently no shortage of teams willing to try.

“At Google’s headquarters … 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.”

Google and the X Prize Foundation are hoping to rejuvenate interest in space exploration and perhaps even inspire a new generation to get involved in science and technology. Keeping the prize to a reasonable size is also aimed at spurring innovations that reduce the costs of space exploration.

“At the event [announcing the contest], the new lunar explorers shared some high-minded goals, like reigniting moon exploration and jump-starting an age of space commerce. ‘This is about developing a new generation of technology that is cheaper, can be used more often and will enable a new wave of explorers,’ said Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation. 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.”

Certainly this competition is more ambitious than winning the America’s Cup yacht race; but even so, the objectives that must be achieved are relatively modest once teams reach the moon.

“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.”

Putting a deadline on accomplishing the feat is a nice twist. It gives urgency to the task and ensures that serious teams will keep their focus over the next several years. Participants acknowledge that the effort could easily exceed the size of the prize purse. They apparently see winning the prize as a way to subsidize research and development they would be pursuing anyway. The contest also appeals to their sense of adventure and fun.

“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.”

Don’t expect to see anything like the Lunar Rover being sent to the moon. That vehicle cost $38 million to build in 1971, the equivalent of $201 million today taking inflation into account. In fact, some the robots being sent to the moon could be very small indeed.

“Fred J. Bourgeois, the head of Frednet, the group of engineers who are collaborating online in the manner of open-source software developers, said that his team was building a toaster-size lunar lander that, once on the moon, would unleash a cellphone-size rover. ‘We think it’s a lot cheaper to put a cellphone on the moon than an S.U.V.,’ Mr. Bourgeois said.”

That gives an entirely new meaning to the term “phone home.” Stone reports that NASA, although not an entrant in the contest, has announced plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. For years, some scientists have asserted that manned space efforts, although adventurous, are not cost effective and put no one at risk.

“Though robotic missions are easier to achieve [than manned missions], the X Prize competitors still face formidable challenges, not to mention extravagant costs. Generating the rocket thrust to escape Earth’s gravity is expensive and risky. Once on the moon, robotic rovers may have to survive temperatures that can drop to 250 degrees below zero.”

In a side note, Stone reports that the event did have its controversy.

“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.'”

In spite of the hyperbole, it will be interesting to watch progress as the teams develop their plans and approach launch dates. The first race to space generated a number of commercial spin-off technologies that changed how many of us live. Whether this mini-race to space can do the same remains to be seen.