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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Lunar X Prize Top Finalists Announced

Now 10 teams of scientists and dreamers from around the world, including one that thanked Jesus Christ for inspiration, have joined a $30 million-plus race to the moon co-sponsored by Google.

Google said in September that it would pay $20 million to the first private team to land a robotic rover on the moon by the year 2014 and transmit data to Earth. It promised $5 million for second place and another $5 million in bonuses.

On Thursday, Space Florida - a public-private partnership that promotes the Sunshine State's aerospace industry - announced it would sweeten the pot by $2 million for any winning contestant that launches from its facilities.

The nonprofit XPrize Foundation, which will administer the contest, introduced the first contestant in December, a British-Canadian group called Odyssey Moon. A U.S. startup by the name of Astrobotic, led by Carnegie-Mellon robotics expert William "Red" Whittaker, also declared its intention to compete at that time.

Eight new teams were announced Thursday. At Google headquarters, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and XPrize Foundation Chairman Peter Diamandis welcomed all 10 teams to the race.

Lending an international flavor to the race, Professor Alberto Rovetta of Politecnico di Milano in Italy, said his team's participation was intended to spur "the young heart of Italy" toward a greater interest in science and engineering.

"Science needs brains, but the heart is essential," he said.

Bogdan Sburlea, project manager for ARCA, the Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association, drew a laugh when he said the race was the best way to fire up young imaginations. Young people are interested in only two things, he said, "space exploration and finding out what happened to the dinosaurs. And that's it."

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.

Colorado engineer Richard Speck paused while talking about his Team Micro-Space to hold up a simple red cross and said, "I need to thank the Lord Jesus Christ for inspiration."

Brin said the idea for the competition grew out of conversations with Diamandis, a space entrepreneur and personal friend, and Elon Musk, another friend and former PayPal executive who started his own Southern California rocket firm, SpaceX.

"I said, 'What would it take to get a rover on the moon?' " Brin said.

When he learned the cost would range from tens of millions of dollars to about $100 million, Brin said, he realized it was an amount some companies might spend to make a movie or sponsor a racing yacht.

"I was shocked at how this incredible space for human discovery was left absent" from private sector support, Brin said, adding, "If we are going to sponsor things, it should be for new discovery and in ambitious and unexpected ways."

Behind the race is the belief that the moon is an "eighth continent" that will one day provide resources for human consumption. In fielding questions after the presentation, Diamandis likened the lunar orb to Alaska, whose purchase by the United States more than a century ago seemed a folly at the time. Now, it provides oil and other resources. In similar fashion, he said, one benefit of moon exploration might be the mining of silicon to create solar arrays that ultimately would beam power back to Earth.

"That's the most outrageous idea I've heard in my life," replied retired satellite engineer Harold Rosen, provoking a lively discussion among the brilliant, factious bunch.

Adil Jafry, an energy executive with Team Chandah, said in his case, the inspiration was simply that he believed a proverb he once heard: "Your children will go to the moon to have tea one day."

Diamandis said that more than 500 teams from 53 nations - including a group from Kazakhstan - so far have expressed interest in the race, but only the 10 announced teams have satisfied the XPrize Foundation that they have the right stuff to orchestrate a moon launch and exploration.

Rounding out the eight other contestants announced Thursday are:

-- Team Quantum 3, including former NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd;

-- Team SCSG, led by retired satellite engineer Rosen, who developed the first geostationary satellite that made it possible to broadcast the 1964 Tokyo Olympics;

-- Team LunaTrex, headed by Indiana businessman Pete Bitar;

-- Team Chandah, the Sanskrit word for "moon," led by Jafry, chief executive of Houston-based Tara Energy.


Google and The X Prize Foundation announced yesterday the ten top finalists to register for the race towards winning the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. The ten international groups that remained in the battle will compete to land on the Moon a privately funded robotic craft, which will also have to roam the Moon’s surface for at least 500 meters and to send data back to Earth.

"I'm very pleased to welcome our first 10 fully registered teams to the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Only 6 months after the announcement of this competition, the response has been incredible -- we have received over 567 expressions of interest from 53 nations. By comparison, at the 6 month point of the Ansari X PRIZE we had only 2 teams registered. I think we are going to see an exciting and very competitive race to the Moon, highlighted by some very creative designs unlike anything we have seen come out of the government space programs. Many of these teams represent some of the most creative and entrepreneurial minds in space exploration today. I wish them all the very best of luck. I can't wait to join with Google in paying the winner," said Peter H. Diamandis, The X Prize Foundation’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. Diamandis made the official announcement at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California. Google is the sponsor of this important project; the powerful company promised no less than $20 million to the first team to land its craft on the Moon, move it at least 500 meters and send data (images and video) back to Earth. If the team is able to complete also additional tasks, Google will offer its members the opportunity to win other bonus prizes ($10 million).

"We are excited that ten teams from around the world have taken up the challenge of the Google Lunar X PRIZE," Megan Smith, Google's Vice President for New Business Development, said in a statement. "We look forward to the exciting achievements and scientific advancements that will result from the efforts of these teams as they participate in the next great space race," Smith also added.

The first ten finalists Google and the X Prize Foundation announced yesterday are the following: The Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association (ARCA), led by Dumitru Popescu; Astrobotic, led by Dr. William “Red” Whittaker; Chandah, helmed by Adil Jafry; FREDNET, led by Fred J. Bourgeois III; LunaTrex, led by Peter Bitar; Micro-Space, headed by Richard Speck; Odyssey Moon, led by Dr. Robert Richards; Quantum3, headed by Paul Carliner; Southern California Selene Group, led by Harold Rosen andTeam Italia, headed by Amalia Ercoli-Finzi.

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