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Friday, February 22, 2008

Google Shoots For The Moon

Ten Teams Compete In Google’s $30 Million Lunar Prize X Project
Shooting for the moon - and a $20 million prize
Adil Jafry knew little about space. But when he heard there was a $20 million prize for the first team that could build a privately funded spacecraft and land it on the moon by 2012, he figured he could learn.

The 35-year-old energy executive, who was born the same year NASA ended its Apollo missions, snatched up 26 books from two months ago, and has been reading such titles as "Destination Space: Making Science Fiction a Reality" ever since.

"So here I am," he said Thursday, as the first 10 teams registered to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize competition were revealed at Google headquarters in Mountain View. "I'm doing this for my children."

But make no mistake about it, this is not your average sweepstakes.

Sponsored by Google and the X Prize Foundation, the contest requires participants to come up with the millions in necessary capital, create and launch an unmanned spaceship capable of sending back photographs and videos after exploring at least 547 yards (500 meters) on the moon.

"The traditional industry is doubtful that anybody can do it and that's fine," said Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. "But we have great faith in entrepreneurial ability and really believe someone will win the Google Lunar X Prize."

The competition was launched in hopes of inspiring the private sector to think creatively about space exploration,

perhaps leading to relatively low-cost innovations.
Indeed, all teams will be required to share what they learn.

Since the competition was first announced just six months ago, 567 potential teams from 53 countries have requested registration packets.

"I think there's all this pent-up demand to explore," said Google co-founder Sergey Brin. "I think there's just a lot of excitement about it. It doesn't feel to them like it's business as usual."

Paul Carliner remembers the day he first heard about the contest. "I was at home minding my own business," he laughs, when a co-worker e-mailed him and asked if he knew about it.

When the co-worker said they should become a team, Carliner's initial thought was "You're crazy," he recalled.

"But the beauty of it is it's really not crazy. It's actually doable," said an optimistic Carliner, president of a strategic consulting and government relations firm. "And that's how you change minds and change perceptions. People think only NASA can go to the moon. This is a paradigm shift."

Granted, one of Carliner's team members is a former NASA deputy chief engineer and an expert in spacecraft design and mission planning. Another has more than 25 years of experience in the aerospace industry.

Although the competition is open to anyone, most team leaders said it's critical to have a strong background in space and engineering, connections in aerospace and, perhaps above all else, the ability to raise money. Lunar rovers aren't cheap. Most teams will be seeking sponsors to come up with millions of dollars in capital.

Google and the X Prize Foundation have lofty hopes that knowledge gleaned through moon missions will allow earthlings to use energy and materials from outside the Earth's biosphere to solve some of Earth's resources issue. One idea is to transmit energy to the Earth's surface - around the clock - using solar power collectors made from material found on the moon. At the very least, they said, a private lunar landing will help scientists learn about the solar system.

The Internet search engine giant is putting up the prize money for the contest co-sponsored by the X Prize Foundation, a non-profit organization that offers financial incentives to bring about breakthroughs in science and technology. The first competition was the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private suborbital spaceflight, in which scientists built and flew the world's first private vehicle into space - twice, in two weeks. The $10 million Archon Genomics X Prize will go to the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.

Among the competitors of the lunar contest: Harold Rosen, an 81-year-old grandpa. He also happens to be an electrical engineer who designed and directed the construction of the first geosynchronous communications satellite, called Syncom.

Rosen, who has retired several times only to take on new challenges, said there's a simple reason why he's joined the Google Lunar X Prize competition, and it isn't the prize money.

"This is fun," he said. "That's why we're doing it."

First it conquered cyberspace. Now, Google is setting its sights on outer space.

The company on Thursday announced the first 10 teams of competitors in its $30 million contest to send a spacecraft back to the moon to gain greater insights into the solar system and to find new sources of clean energy.

The Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) Lunar X Prize contest requires each team--largely composed of scientists and businesspeople--to build a robotic craft that can roam across the moon's surface, beam video, images and data back to Earth and even tap into natural resources.

One bold ambition of the project: using lunar materials to make solar power collectors that can generate carbon-free energy, which is then transmitted to the Earth. This, of course, would fit in nicely with the Mountain View, Calif., company's plan to develop alternative energy sources that are cheaper than coal and far less polluting. (See: " Google Goes Green") At least no one can accuse Google of thinking small.

Google isn't paying the costs for the teams to develop the rockets; it's simply holding out the carrot of a top prize of $20 million to the team that builds a vessel that can land on the moon and accomplish its mission. Each team has to raise the money to construct a spacecraft on its own.

The 10 teams vying to win Google's top prize come from diverse industries and parts of the world. The teams include Astrobotic, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and Raytheon (nyse: RTN - news - people ); Chandah, spearheaded by an energy industry entrepreneur from Texas; Romania's Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association; and Team Italia, a consortium of universities in Italy. Each team is using private funds to develop their robotic spacecrafts.

The contest, announced last fall, is being co-sponsored by the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit organization that administers competitions to spur the development of technologies that aspire to solve dire problems around the world.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin came up with the idea for the contest after chatting with X Prize Foundation Chief Executive Peter Diamandis and PayPal founder Elon Musk. "It occurred to me that [Google] should be doing new kinds of things in ambitious and unexpected ways," Brin told a group of reporters at Google's headquarters Thursday.

He speculated that Google's contest might get a spacecraft on the moon before the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration does. The company said it will award a cash prize of $20 million by the end of 2012 to the contestant that lands a privately funded craft on the moon, roams the lunar surface for at least 50 meters (164 feet) and transmits a specified set of images and data back to Earth. By contrast, NASA has a deadline of 2020 to get another craft to the moon.

Although Google said the contest has received more than 567 "expressions of interest" from scientists and businesspeople around the world, 10 teams have thus far paid the $10,000 registration fee and have proved that their space vehicles could be functional. Diamandis expects another 10 to 20 teams to register.

In addition to the first-place prize, Google will award $5 million to a runner-up. The company also plans to dole out another $5 million in "bonus prizes," likely spread among several entrants.

The last spacecraft to land on the Moon was NASA's Apollo 12 mission, nearly 40 years ago. Nancy Conrad, the widow of Apollo 12 commander Charles "Pete" Conrad, attended the Google media briefing. "I'm stoked we're going back," she said.

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