| CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Web search leader
Google Inc. will sponsor a $30 million competition for an
unmanned lunar landing, following up on the $10 million Ansari
X Prize that spurred a private sector race to space.
Like the Ansari X Prize, which was claimed in 2004 by
aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen for a
pair of flights by SpaceShipOne, the Google Lunar X Prize is
open to private industry and non-government entities worldwide,
organizers said before an official announcement on Thursday.
First prize is $20 million for the group that can land a
lunar rover -- an unmanned robotic probe -- on the moon, take
it on a 500 meter (1,640 ft) trek and broadcast video back to
Earth by December 31, 2012.
The prize falls to $15 million if the landing takes place
by December 31, 2014.
A second-place winner will receive $5 million. In addition,
at least $5 million in bonuses are available for milestones
such as finding relics from the U.S. Apollo moon landings, or
from Soviet lunar explorations, detecting water ice or keeping
the rover alive on the lunar surface overnight.
"Our hope is to educate and change public views about the
moon," X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis told Reuters
in an interview last week. "The moon is an offshore island of
Earth that has valuable resources which will benefit us as we
grow as a species. We should look at it in that fashion."
The program was to be officially unveiled at Wired
magazine's NextFest technology showcase, which opened Thursday
in Los Angeles.
NASA had considered a similar venture as part of its
Centennial Challenges program, but the agency so far has been
able to fund prizes only up to $750,000. The NASA competitions
also are closed to non-Americans.
"NASA is kind of an interested bystander," said Pete
Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Centre in California
and a long-time commercial space and lunar development
advocate. "If a private company perfects a process to get
payloads to the moon, NASA will have a lot interest in that."
The United States plans to retire its space shuttles in
2010 and develop new vehicles that can fly people to the
International Space Station as well as the moon.
NASA, which landed six crews on the moon between 1969 and
1972 under the Apollo program, hopes to return astronauts to
the lunar surface by 2020.
They may find it a busy place, as Russia, Japan, India and
China have announced their own lunar ambitions.
SEEDING NEW INDUSTRY
Diamandis said he guessed four or five teams in the United
States have the technical skills and financial backing to enter
the race, and about the same number overseas. He estimated
building, flying and operating a rover on the moon will cost
between $20 million and $60 million.
It could seed a new industry. The SpaceShipOne flights
paved the way for the construction of a fleet of commercial
suborbital spacecraft for Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of
Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Passenger service is expected
to begin in 2009 or 2010.
"We're starting on steps that will eventually lead to
permanent settlement of the moon and Mars," Worden said.
"That's probably going to get led by the private sector."
To help aspiring lunar explorers, start-up launch services
firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of El Segundo,
Calif., is offering to fly contestants' rovers on its Falcon
rockets at cost, which would be about $7 million for its
"I'm a huge believer in us becoming a space-faring
civilization," said SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the creator of
Internet payments scheme PayPal.