Google and the X Prize Foundation announce their partnership in sponsoring the Lunar X Prize.

Courtesy Google

Introduction to How the Google Lunar X Prize Works

According to its corporate mission statement, Google is a search engine company pursuing the lofty goal of organizing the world's information [source: Google]. It's famous for fostering innovation in computer programming. The Googleplex, Google's corporate headquarters, reflects the company's values by providing employees a technologically advanced workplace designed with collaboration in mind. And now, Google is expanding its presence beyond Earth itself: Google is going to the moon. To understand how and why Google is doing this, let's take a quick look at past explorations.

On Jan. 2, 1959, the Luna 1 spacecraft launched from the then-Soviet Union. It escaped Earth's gravity and passed by the moon. Along the way, it used several instruments to collect measurements on its journey. Among the data sent back to Earth was the revelation that the moon has no magnetic field. Luna 1's launch marked the beginning of mankind's attempts to study the moon through space travel.

Ten years later, the Apollo 11 spacecraft touched down on the moon's surface. This marked the first time humans set foot on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the moon's surface, conducted experiments and collected samples of lunar material.

Over the next several decades, there would be more missions -- manned and unmanned -- to the moon. Gradually, people began to look beyond the moon to other bodies in our solar system. Interest in lunar exploration began to fade. But in 2006, NASA announced a new plan to send astronauts to the moon again by 2020 [source: NASA]. As a result, interest in the lunar landscape is on the rise.

This brings us to Google, a company that prides itself on being at the forefront of gathering and organizing information. Google is sponsoring a competition called the Lunar X Prize. The competition is open to privately funded groups. The groups are charged with a task that's easy to describe, but very hard to achieve. They must launch a vehicle that can journey to the moon, land safely on its surface and deploy a mobile robotic device. The winner could receive more than $20 million. Several teams have already joined the competition. The race is on!

How do teams qualify to enter the Lunar X Prize competition? Keep reading to find out.

I Won $20 Million U.S. and All I have is a Massive Debt

Could a team win first prize and still end up in a financial deficit? It's quite possible. Teams may have to spend more money than they could possibly win in order to accomplish the competition's goals. That's not unusual, though. Even early aeronautical contests at the dawn of the age of flight saw teams spend significantly more money than they could earn from a clean win.

Team Qualifications

What does it take to compete for the Lunar X Prize? Google and the X Prize Foundation have outlined several qualifications teams must meet if they wish to win:

  • Teams must submit a letter of intent to Google. This is an official notice establishing the team's spot in the competition. Google and the X Prize Foundation will review each team's submission. Once Google finalizes the Master Team Agreement, each team will have to sign the agreement to participate in the competition. The Master Team Agreement will establish the final set of rules and guidelines all teams must follow.
  • While Google and the X Prize Foundation have yet to settle on the final registration fee, each team will have to pay a fee no greater than $10,000 in order to compete.
  • Each team must receive no less than 90 percent of its funding from private sources. In other words, teams can't apply for government grants or any other public funds that would exceed 10 percent of the team's overall budget.
  • In a related rule, governments can't participate directly in the competition. For example, Japan couldn't sponsor a team. This also means that government organizations like NASA can't enter the competition. Government employees can join a team as long as it doesn't relate directly to their governmental positions. In addition, teams can purchase goods and services from governments, provided that the governments in question make such opportunities available to all teams in the competition. Courtesy Google Google Lunar X Prize teams can't buy old space equipment to use in the challenge.
  • Teams won't be allowed to purchase unique "heritage" equipment. That means teams won't be allowed to browse aeronautical museums and purchase old space exploration equipment to repurpose for the competition.
  • Each team must consult with the competition's administrators six months before attempting a launch. The administrators will work with each team to determine a specific landing site on the moon. While teams can attempt to design a mission to take photos of historic moon landing sites, one of the rules of the competition requires such sites be preserved.
  • Teams can launch their respective vehicles from any launch facility. Each team must meet local, national and international laws and regulations regarding launching a vehicle into orbit. In the United States, this includes securing a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
  • Each team must share information about its processes and plans with the rest of the world. One of the goals of the competition is to increase knowledge and education about space exploration. It is the hope of the competition's administrators that the findings from this competition aid future space missions. Sharing information includes everything from blogging to publishing videos and schematics and attending public events.
  • Teams must agree to give Google and the X Prize Foundation merchandising rights, although the teams will receive a portion of the revenue generated from merchandise. This could include everything from T-shirts to toy models.

Once Google and the X Prize Foundation finalize the rules and the teams agree to them, the game is on. What does a team have to do to win the prize? Keep reading to find out.

The Clock is Ticking

In order to collect the $20 million first prize, the winning team must complete all the parameters for a successful attempt before Dec. 31, 2012. On Jan. 1, 2013, first prize reduces to $15 million until Dec. 31, 2014. At that time, the contest will either end or Google and the X Prize Foundation may elect to extend the competition.

Rules of the Game

In order to win the full Lunar X Prize, a team must be the first to complete the following tasks:

  • Launch a vehicle and make a soft landing on the surface of the moon. A soft landing means the vehicle must make a controlled descent to the surface rather than a crash landing.
  • Deploy a vehicle (either the spacecraft itself or a secondary vehicle) to travel at least 500 meters on, above or below the surface of the moon.
  • Deliver two separate streams of data to Earth. Google and the X Prize Foundation call these streams "mooncasts." Each mooncast must include at least 500 megabytes (MB) of data.
  • The first of the two mooncasts must document the lunar arrival of the spacecraft using videos, still photos, prerecorded messages (in the form of an audio voiceover), an e-mail and a text message. These messages will serve as the first of their kind broadcast from the surface of the moon to Earth.
  • The second mooncast has to include videos and photos gathered during the vehicle's journey while on the moon.
  • The vehicle must be able to accept a transmission of 10 MB of data from Earth and then retransmit the data back to Earth. Courtesy Google Lunar X Prize teams will have to develop a roving robot to explore the surface of the moon.

If a team's vehicle can accomplish the above goals, the team will win the grand prize: $20 million. There's also a second prize of $5 million. The second prize provide incentive so that teams will continue to try and achieve their goals even if another team grabs first prize. Google and the X Prize Foundation may award the second prize to a team that accomplishes some, but not all, of the goals listed above. For example, should the first team to successfully land a vehicle on the moon discover the vehicle can't travel the full 500 meters required to win first prize, it may be eligible for second place.

In addition to the conditions listed above, there are several bonus objectives teams can attempt. Each bonus objective will earn the winning team a prize. At the moment, the collective prize amount for the bonus objectives is $5 million. The heritage bonus prize awards teams that use their vehicles to capture photos and video of historic artifacts on the moon. In order to pursue this prize, the respective teams must secure permission and cooperation with Google and the X Prize Foundation. Teams that can pilot their vehicles to a distance of at least 5 kilometers can win the range bonus. A vehicle that can survive and remain operational for two full lunar days -- about 58 Earth days total -- is eligible for the survival bonus. The team that has the most diversity within its membership can win a diversity bonus. And finally, should a vehicle detect any evidence that there may have been water on the moon, the responsible team will win the water detection bonus prize.

Google says it will continue to tweak and adjust the qualifications and rules of the game up until January 2009, when it will present the finalized guidelines to all participating teams.

Who are the competing teams? Find out in the next section.

Courtesy Google

Lunar X Prize Players

As of this writing, there are 13 teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. The first team to officially join the competition is Odyssey Moon. Odyssey Moon completed its registration process in December 2007. Its headquarters are on the Isle of Man, which is in the Irish Sea and is part of the United Kingdom. The team leaders include Bob Richards, once a student of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, and Ramin Khadem, the chief financial officer (CFO) of a satellite-provider company called Inmarsat.

Khadem claims that competing will be rewarding on its own even if Odyssey Moon doesn't win first prize [source: Wired]. That's quite possible, as teams may develop new technologies and processes that will become standard for space travel in the future. Also, competing can help boost an organization's reputation within the scientific community.

The other 12 teams in the competition include:

  • Astrobotic Technology, Inc., a team with members representing Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Arizona and the Raytheon Company
  • Team Italia, which among its proposed rover designs is considering a spider-like robot to travel across the moon
  • Micro Space, Inc., a high-tech company based in Colorado
  • Southern California Selene Group, an engineering team led by Dr. Harold Rosen, who designed the first successful geostationary satellite -- this team dropped out of the competition after the official First Team Summit
  • FredNet, a collection of open source software and hardware developers
  • Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association (ARCA), one of the competitors for the original X Prize
  • LunaTrex, a team made up of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs from across the United States
  • Quantum3 Ventures, whose founders include former NASA executives and leaders in the aerospace industry
  • Chandah (which means "moon" in Sanskrit), headed by Adil Rahim Jafry, an energy industry entrepreneur
  • Advaeros, the team representing Advanced Aerospace Industries
  • JURBAN, a team representing the nonprofit science education organization known as The Juxtopia Group
  • STELLAR, a collaborative effort involving several technology companies, research facilities and universities
  • Mystery Team, as of this writing, this is a group that has chosen to remain anonymous for now -- the team will have to reveal its identity by June 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing

Why are these teams competing for this prize? Most of them cite a love of discovery, innovation and competition. While every team wishes to be the first to fulfill the competition's requirements, most say the prize money isn't the most important incentive. Instead, the teams wish to promote exploration, create new technologies to aid future endeavors and continue the process of privatizing space travel. Through competitions like the X Prize, these teams hope to lead the way in building a new aerospace industry -- one that doesn't have to rely upon public funds.

Why does the Google Lunar X Prize even exist, and how could it affect the way we explore space? Find out in the next section.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale affirms the space agency's support for the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Dale pointed out that the contest would not only foster innovation, but also encourage children to become interested in space exploration.

Courtesy Google

Why is There a Lunar X Prize?

For several decades, only the governments of a few countries got involved in the field of space exploration. Private companies developed many of the technologies used in various space programs. But government agencies were the only groups organizing and executing missions.

The Lunar X Prize is an attempt to encourage a private space exploration industry. Why privatize space exploration? One of the reasons is that privatization promotes competition. With a publically funded program, the administering organization might consider bids from various companies when deciding upon technologies and equipment. Ultimately, only a few private companies will get to produce the equipment used in a mission.

A privatized space industry is a different story. Competing technology companies can participate. It's a huge public relations boost when a company's products contribute to a team winning the X Prize. And because multiple technologies from different companies are involved, it becomes possible to compare different approaches and see what works best.

Another reason to promote a private space industry has to do with costs. Publically funded organizations have to adhere to strict budgets. Sometimes this means a government-funded space organization has to abandon plans if the cost is too much. For example, NASA considered abandoning the Hubble Space Telescope when the projected costs of a robotic repair mission climbed too high. A privatized approach means that each individual, company or organization involved must determine its own spending limits. The consideration shifts from an agreed-upon budget to a comparison of risk versus reward.

The competition's administrators say that they want to promote space travel in a way that engages and excites young people. The future of the space industry depends upon young people getting interested in the field. For that reason, a big part of the competition involves reaching out to educational facilities and allowing students the opportunity to interact with the various teams. By bringing space exploration into the classroom, the administrators hope to inspire the next generation of engineers and astronauts.

One of the goals of the Lunar X Prize competition is to raise interest in space exploration and education.

Courtesy Google

Google and the X Prize Foundation also hope that as companies develop new technologies, the price of space exploration will decrease. Since each team must share its approach with the public, future engineers will be able to see which methods are best suited for space exploration. In effect, the Lunar X Prize is a massive research and development project.

Finally, the Lunar X Prize could help establish the moon as a legitimate launching point for future space missions. NASA plans to establish a lunar base by the middle of the century. A base on the moon could serve as the staging ground for missions to more distant destinations, like Mars. Some people believe the moon could harvest energy we could use back here on Earth. The Lunar X Prize helps draw attention (and perhaps funding) to other moon missions.

Want to learn more about the moon and space travel? Blast off to the next page to explore some great links.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • David, Leonard. "Google to Sponsor $30 Million Lunar X Prize." Space.com. Sept. 13, 2007. http://www.space.com/news/070913_google_xprize.html
  • Eustace, Alan. "Fly me to the moon." Official Google Blog. Sept. 13, 2007. http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2007/09/fly-me-to-moon.html
  • "Google and Space." Google. http://www.google.com/space/
  • Google Corporate Overview. http://www.google.com/corporate/
  • Google Lunar X Prize. http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/
  • "Launch or Reentry Vehicles." Federal Aviation Administration. http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/licenses _permits/launch_reentry/
  • "Lunar Exploration Timeline." NASA. http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/lunartimeline.html
  • Madrigal, Alexis. "Google Lunar X-Prize Gets First Official Entrant." Wired. Dec. 6, 2007. http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/12/moon-20-blasts.html
  • McCullagh, Declan. "Google Lunar X Prize's race to the moon has begun." CNET News. Dec. 6, 2007. http://www.news.com/8301-10784_3-9830063-7.html
  • Dale, Shana. "X Prize Announcement." NASA. Sept. 13, 2007. http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/189524main_sd_xprize_20070913.pdf
  • Richards, Robert D. Personal Web page, biography section. http://www.robertdrichards.com/
  • "Why the Moon?" NASA. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/exploration/mmb/why_moon.html
  • X Prize Foundation. http://www.xprize.org/