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Google Offers $20 Million X Prize to Put Robot on Moon

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Inquisitor Posted: Sat, Nov 17 2007 9:09 AM

Editor's Note: Google will award $20 million to the first private team
to put a robot on the moon, the company and the X Prize Foundation
announced at Wired NextFest in Los Angeles Thursday. Members of the
public will also get the chance to send digital mementos to the moon.
In this advance from the October issue of Wired magazine, contributing
editor Spencer Reiss explains what's behind the Google Lunar X Prize,
and what it will take to win it.

Maybe it was the edible wafer-paper-and-soy-ink menus or the
"sustainable" blue-cheese mousse whipped up by Google's chefs. Maybe
it was the full-size replica of the indie commercial spacecraft
SpaceShipOne suspended overhead. Or Robin Williams' jokes. Whatever
the reason, the hundreds of Silicon Valley grandees who packed the
Googleplex one Saturday evening last March were in an expansive mood.
They had dropped $1,250 or more a head to benefit the X Prize
Foundation, the nonprofit dedicated to spurring innovation through
public competitions that promise big payouts to the winners. Supersize
possibilities hung in the air.

A morning brainstorm featuring Google's Larry Page and Virgin's
Richard Branson had already turned up scores of possible new X Prize
targets, from early cancer detection to ultracheap solar energy.
During a break for lunch, Page dropped one more on X Prize chief Peter
Diamandis: He and Google cofounder Sergey Brin had been "kicking
around" the idea of sending low-cost robotic landers to the moon.

Diamandis, who has been launching extraterrestrial enterprises since
he was an MIT undergrad in the 1980s, grabbed his laptop and
disappeared, returning half an hour later with a freshly minted
PowerPoint deck. Page looked it over, then said, "Talk to Sergey."
That evening, as the guests sipped cocktails in the shadow of the
little white spaceplane, Diamandis cornered the Google technology
chief and pitched. Brin loved it. "Some endeavors are too speculative,
even for venture capital," he says. "If they're really worth doing,
you try to find some other way."

Thus was born the Google Lunar X Prize, the latest and, well, farthest-
out of the foundation's efforts to bolt competitive afterburners onto
some of mankind's signature quests. Three years ago, SpaceShipOne won
the first X Prize -- officially the Ansari X Prize, named for the
family of software entrepreneurs that underwrote it. Microsoft
cofounder Paul Allen and serial aeronaut Burt Rutan collected $10
million for building the world's first privately funded reusable
manned spacecraft. Since then, Diamandis has announced competitions
for ultra-rapid gene sequencing and hyper fuel efficient vehicles.
This latest challenge: Put a robotic lander on the moon, take a spin
across the lunar landscape, and beam back visuals -- with minimal or no
government assistance. Pull that off before anyone else and the
galaxy's richest, most audacious Internet company will hand over $20
million. You can win up to $5 million more for extras like traversing
greater distances, visiting historic landing sites, and surviving the
lunar night. There's a $5 million consolation prize if you come in
second or land safely but fail to complete the rest of the mission.
(No prize for guessing the name of the competition's official Web
video service.)

The challenge goes beyond merely reaching the lunar surface. Pound for
pound, putting anything on the moon -- let alone sending back panoramic
photos and YouTube clips -- makes even manned suborbital flight look
like a walk on the Mojave runway. Winning will require the biz-dev
skills to muster funding and the technical savvy to manage squirrelly
orbital mechanics, remote-control robotics, and bring-your-own
bandwidth. Sure, the Russians made the first soft lunar landing more
than 40 years ago, using Cold War era hardware. And yes, today you can
fire up an iPhone and check the view from NASA's rovers on the Red
Planet, another 90 million or so miles farther out in the cosmos. What
you can't do -- at least for now -- is go off-planet without the kind of
boondoggle budget that only governments can cough up. "How cool would
it be," Diamandis says, "to do what NASA does at a tenth the cost? Or
a hundredth? The technologies are there. What we need is a competitive
model that can make it happen."

In fact, X Prize-style competitions tend to be less about the
technological bleeding edge than busting down cost barriers. Charles
Lindbergh's famous Spirit of St. Louis, the gold standard for prize-
driven innovation, was adapted from a stock production plane, after
all. The Ansari X Prize required a tremendous feat of aeronautics, but
its real accomplishment was making it cheaper to get into space -- and
thus opening a flight path to space tourism. The Google Lunar X Prize
aims to do the same for Earth's nearest neighbor, transforming what
has been a combination celestial junkyard and stone-dead nature
preserve into a viable human frontier. "Today, Earth's economic sphere
extends out to geosynchronous orbit -- 22,000 miles," Diamandis says.
"We want to increase that by an order of magnitude."

Two dozen registered teams took a crack at the original X Prize,
though few of them made it off the ground. Will the higher stakes of
the lunar challenge pull a bigger, wealthier crowd? One likely
participant, Paul Allen, won't comment. Neither will Idealab chair
Bill Gross, whose bubble-era startup, Blastoff, had a strikingly
similar lunar mission -- and a CEO named Peter Diamandis. Google, in
particular, hopes to see a global pool of challengers; China, India,
Japan, Russia, and plenty of European countries boast the requisite
technical skills, pride, and billionaires. (An international judging
committee will watch for under-the-table government aid.) Launch costs
alone could burn up tens of millions of dollars, so the foundation is
hoping to lure high-profile corporate sponsors.

Of course, it took almost a decade to award the Ansari X Prize; the
winner emerged only after a midcourse adjustment dropped the altitude
requirement from 100 miles to 100 kilometers. ("Thank god we did,"
Diamandis says. "Or we'd still be waiting.") Aiming to bring the lunar
showdown to a conclusion by 2012, Diamandis and company spent last
summer debating how high to set the bar. "It's audacity versus
achievability," says Will Pomerantz, the foundation's space prize
director. "Too hard, and you won't have a winner. Too easy, and you
don't drive breakthroughs." Then there's the question of
affordability: The $20 million grand prize probably won't cover the
cost of getting something up there, and losers will likely spend at
least that amount with no return on investment.

Which raises the question: What's in it for Google? Lunar data
centers? Google Maps Street View for Tranquility Base? For the record,
Mountain View's corporate feet are planted squarely on terra firma.
"Companies today spend more on stadiums and sailboat races than we
will spend on this," says Brin, who was barely out of diapers back in
Moscow when the last -- Soviet, as it happens -- moon lander, itself a
robot craft, sent a scoop of soil back to Earth three decades ago.
"Expanding science and technology is a far better way to reflect
Google's values," he says. Plus there's the possibility of putting a
Google logo on the moon.



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Dynamix replied on Sat, Nov 17 2007 11:09 PM

This is the best news I've heard in the last half decade.

"Melody is a form of remembrance. It must have a quality of inevitability in our ears." - Gian Carlo Menotti

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