After pioneering software that allows people to explore Earth in unprecedented detail, Google set its sights on mapping the moon. Now the popular Internet search engine wants to help send a robot there. Yesterday, the Mountain View, California-based company announced that it will sponsor a $30 million prize for the first privately funded lunar robotic rover.
"We are here today embarking upon this great adventure of having a nongovernmental, commercial organization return to the moon and explore," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a statement. "And I'm very excited that Google can play a part in it."
The contest is modeled on the Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million to the first private company to reach suborbital space twice within 2 weeks using a reusable piloted vehicle. Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, won the contest in 2004 and is now building a commercial version for British entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
According to the rules of the Google Lunar X Prize, the winner must be the first to land a spacecraft on the moon that can travel at least 500 meters and send back data, images, and video of the surface. Peter Diamandis, X Prize chair and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, the organization running the Google prize, explained in a statement that he wants to encourage low-cost missions to the moon in order to open the frontier beyond Earth orbit. "It could be another 6 to 8 years before any government returns," he said. "Even then, it will be at a large expense, and probably with little public involvement."
NASA recently canceled a series of rovers--each of which it estimated would cost hundreds of millions of dollars--because of budget constraints. Diamandis says he hopes to lure innovators who normally would not be attracted to typical government space contracts.
A host of government efforts to reach the moon are already under way. Today, Japan's space agency launched a mission from Tanegashima Island. A Chinese spacecraft is slated for liftoff by the end of this year, and a NASA flight will follow next year. All three missions involve orbiters, however, meaning no craft will actually land on the lunar surface. China is also considering sending a rover to the moon early in the next decade in preparation for a possible human landing.