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Google Lunar X Prize

by Guy McCardle

July 30, 2011

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Donate The Space Shuttle has completed her final mission and returned to earth safely. Now it is on to the next chapter of the space race. The Google Lunar X Prize is leading the way by offering a total of $30 million in prizes to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon and have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface and send images and data back to the Earth. Teams must be 90% privately funded. You can find out more about the prize here.

So far 29 teams have signed up to give lunar exploration a try. Some have adopted cool names like "Odyssey Moon" and "Euroluna" where others have opted for more mundane monikers like team "Part-time Scientists". I wonder if there is time to launch (pun intended) team Skeptoid. Probably not, because the deadline for the challenge is December 2015.

The teams have multiple different goals and reasons to want to be the first back to the moon. Sure 30 million dollars is nice, but Moon Express is positioning itself as a future FedEx for Moon deliveries. If you have something that has to go to the moon, they want to be the ones to take it. Naveen Jain is an Internet billionaire and a founder of Moon Express. He anticipates spending between 70 to 100 million dollars in his attempt to win the Google Lunar X Prize. That money, he says, could be recouped during the first successful flight.

Astrobotic Technology (Team Astrobotic) intends to sell berths on its lunar lander to space agencies and scientific institutions. Customers would pay $820,000 a pound to send up their experiments. The company is building a large craft capable of carrying 240 pounds of payload and hopes to be ready to launch in December 2013. That is a staggering $200 million in cargo.

“We can make a lot of money even if we do not win the prize,” said David Gump, president of Astrobotic, which is based in Pittsburgh. “We will be making substantial profit on the first flight. Basically, we’ll break even by selling a third of the payload.”

Any plans that NASA had to go back to the moon were canceled last year due to budget cuts and shifting governmental priorities. NASA has, however, awarded $500,000 each to Moon Express, Astrobotic and Rocket City Space Pioneers. The space agency has put aside a total of $30 million that it will contribute to the X Prize efforts.

George Xenofos, manager of NASA’s Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program, said he expected one or more teams to make it to the Moon. “It’s definitely not the technical issues that’s stopping them,” he said.

What about legal issues? Can anyone just open up shop on the moon? The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ratified by 100 nations, bars countries from claiming sovereignty over any part of the Moon, but does not prevent private companies from starting a business there. Not surprisingly, there is a least one company that will sell you lunar real estate. You even receive naturalized citizenship in the first Lunar Republic. Talk about getting in on the ground floor.


by Guy McCardle

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