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24hoursnews:The foundation whose $10 million prize spurred privately funded rocketeers to send a small piloted craft to the cusp of space in 2004 has issued a new challenge: an unmanned moon shot.
With the audacious new contest comes a much bigger prize, as much as $25 million, paid for by Google, the ubiquitous Internet company.
The "Google Lunar X Prize" was announced Thursday in Los Angeles at Wired Magazine's NextFest. The contest calls for entrants to land a rover on the moon that will be able to travel at least 500 meters, or 1,640 feet, and send high-resolution video, still images and other data back home.
The X Prize Foundation saw the new contest as one of "the grand challenges of our time that we can use to move people forward," said Peter Diamandis, foundation chairman and chief executive.
The prize for reaching the moon and completing the tasks of roving and sending video and data will bring the winner $20 million, according to the contest rules; an additional $5 million would be awarded for additional tasks that include roving more than 5,000 meters or sending back images of artifacts like lunar landers from the Apollo program.
The $20 million grand prize will be available until Dec. 31, 2012, and then will shrink to $15 million for two years. The contest would be likely to end after that time, although Google and the foundation might be able to extend it.
The new contest follows the path of the original Ansari X Prize, worth $10 million, which was won by SpaceShipOne, a manned spacecraft designed by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites and funded by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft.
That prize was paid for through an insurance policy secured by Anousheh Ansari, a telecommunications entrepreneur in Texas and a board member of the X Prize Foundation who has since flown aboard the International Space Station. Burt Rutan is designing a craft called SpaceShipTwo that will be used by Richard Branson's space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.
The Ansari X Prize was based on earlier contests that spurred exploration and development of previous generations of aircraft, like the $25,000 Orteig Prize that led to the first solo trans-Atlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.
Competitions, the logic goes, build excitement for new technologies and bring varied talent and creativity to bear on difficult problems from many approaches.
The new X Prize, Diamandis said, grew out of research performed last year for NASA as a contest that the U.S. space agency would sponsor. The research suggested that six or seven credible contenders could be expected to try for the prize, but NASA ultimately backed away from financing the project, Diamandis said.
"We were left with a very strong concept, but without a funder," he said.
In March, Diamandis pitched the idea to the Google co-founder Larry Page, who is on the X Prize Foundation board.
Page's reply provided a stark distinction between the ways of government and of billionaire entrepreneurs.
"Sounds like a lot of fun," he said, according to Diamandis. The multimillion-dollar project, Page said, would be "doable," but his Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, would have to sign on as well. And he did.
In a video statement to coincide with the announcement, Brin said that "we believe in the entrepreneurial spirit to accomplish the most ambitious tasks."
NASA has announced plans to return astronauts to the moon as early as 2020. But without the need to keep humans alive or to make a return trip, the X Prize trips would be comparatively simpler. In fact, getting to the moon could be the easier part, since launch vehicles that could reach the moon are already available from the Russian and U.S. governments, and potentially could be produced by other countries and private companies.
A number of successful entrepreneurs from the world of computing and the Internet, like Allen, have pursued childhood fascinations with space through efforts to create real spacecraft. Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal, has developed rockets through his company, Space Exploration Technologies, and Jeffrey Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, is developing rockets at a facility he owns in West Texas.
Robert Bigelow, who has made his fortune in hotels, is developing a space transportation system and a space station that could be used as an orbiting hotel or research base.
Musk, who has a development contract with NASA that could lead to a craft to carry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, serves on the X Prize Foundation board and has offered contest participants reduced prices on its Falcon vehicles to make the 248,000-mile, or 396,400-kilometer, trip.
In his video address, Brin said that within Google, there had been early talk along the lines of, "why don't we just man a new lunar mission our selves?"
He said that he realized, however, that the kind of competition that led to SpaceShipOne would harness the creativity of more entrepreneurs and be "more likely to actually achieve the goal."