Friday, February 22, 2008
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 Amazon.com 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.
Posted by SANJIDA AFROJ at 7:35 PM
NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) have revealed that the youngest known pulsing neutron star has thrown a temper tantrum
Powerful Explosions Suggest Neutron Star Missing Link
Observations from NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) have revealed that the youngest known pulsing neutron star has thrown a temper tantrum. The collapsed star occasionally unleashes powerful bursts of X-rays, which are forcing astronomers to rethink the life cycle of neutron stars.
"We are watching one type of neutron star literally change into another right before our very eyes. This is a long-sought missing link between different types of pulsars," says Fotis Gavriil of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Gavriil is lead author of a paper in the February 21 issue of Sciencexpress.
Pulsars and magnetars belong to the same class of ultradense, small stellar objects called neutron stars, left behind after massive stars die and explode as supernovae. Pulsars, by far the most common type, spin extremely rapidly and emit powerful bursts of radio waves. These waves are so regular that, when they were first detected in the 1960's, researchers considered the possibility that they were signals from an extraterrestrial civilization.
By contrast, magnetars are slowly rotating neutron stars which derive their energy from incredibly powerful magnetic fields, the strongest known in the universe. These fields can stress the neutron star's solid crust past the breaking point, triggering starquakes that snap magnetic-field lines, producing violent and sporadic X-ray bursts. There are over 1800 known pulsars in our galaxy alone, but magnetars are much less common, said the researchers.
"Magnetars are actually very exotic objects," said Dr. Kaspi, McGill's Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology and Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics. "Their existence has only been established in the last 10 years, and we know of only a handful in the whole galaxy. They have dramatic X-ray and gamma-ray bursts and can emit huge flares, sometimes brighter than all other cosmic X-ray sources in the sky combined."
But what is the evolutionary relationship between pulsars and magnetars? Astronomers would like to know if magnetars represent a rare class of pulsars, or if some or all pulsars go through a magnetar phase during their life cycles.
Gavriil and his colleagues have found an important clue by examining archival RXTE data of a young neutron star, known as PSR J1846-0258 for its sky coordinates in the constellation Aquila. Previously, astronomers had classified PSR J1846 as a normal pulsar because of its fast spin (3.1 times per second) and pulsar-like spectrum. But RXTE caught four magnetar-like X-ray bursts on May 31, 2006, and another on July 27, 2006. Although none of these events lasted longer than 0.14 second, they all packed the wallop of at least 75,000 Suns.
"Never before has a regular pulsar been observed to produce magnetar bursts," says Gavriil.
"Young, fast-spinning pulsars were not thought to have enough magnetic energy to generate such powerful bursts," says coauthor Marjorie Gonzalez, who worked on this paper at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but who is now based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "Here's a normal pulsar that's acting like a magnetar."
Observations from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory also provided key information. Chandra observed the neutron star in October 2000 and again in June 2006, around the time of the bursts. Chandra showed the object had brightened in X-rays, confirming that the bursts were from the pulsar, and that its spectrum had changed to become more magnetar- like.
Astronomers know that PSR J1846 is very young for several reasons. First, it resides inside a supernova remnant known as Kes 75, an indicator that it hasn't had time to wander from its birthplace. Second, based on the rapidity that its spin rate is slowing down, astronomers calculate that it can be no older than 884 years - an infant on the cosmic timescale. Magnetars are thought to be about 10,000 years old, whereas most pulsars are thought to be considerably older.
The fact that PSR J1846's spin rate is slowing down relatively fast also means that it has a strong magnetic field that is braking the rotation. The implied magnetic field is trillions of times stronger than Earth's field, but it's 10 to 100 times weaker than typical magnetar field strengths. Coauthor Victoria Kaspi of McGill University notes, "PSR J1846's actual magnetic field could be much stronger than the measured amount, suggesting that many young neutron stars classified as pulsars might actually be magnetars in disguise, and that the true strength of their magnetic field only reveals itself over thousands of years as they ramp up in activity."
Posted by SANJIDA AFROJ at 3:42 PM
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.
Posted by SANJIDA AFROJ at 3:24 PM