You are here

Moon shot: Google's US$20m pot sparks US$140m race

At least a dozen teams are racing to win Google Inc's US$20 million prize for getting to the moon.

[SAN FRANCISCO] At least a dozen teams are racing to win Google Inc's US$20 million prize for getting to the moon. They are likely to spend more than seven times that amount, betting the boost to their moon ventures will be worth even more.

Google's Lunar XPrize will go to the first privately funded team to land on the moon, then travel 500 meters and beam high- definition video back to Earth. Detecting water earns a bonus US$4 million.

Teams in Japan, the US, Brazil, India and Germany see the race as a chance to grab the lead in a market that consultant London Economics forecasts will be worth US$1.9 billion within a decade. The competitors envision mining platinum and rare earth elements, setting up habitats using water from lunar polar caps and, eventually, building a launchpad for a mission to Mars.

"We are not in it for the prize alone. The race is there to speed innovation that leads to commercialization of the moon," said Takeshi Hakamada, whose Tokyo-based Hakuto team is building a lunar rover. "For example, we might explore a lunar cave for possible habitat location. That data would really sell." Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, is already commercializing the space travel business, ferrying payloads into the Earth's orbit on its Falcon 9 rocket for US$61 million and providing private satellite launches for the US government and others.

A Falcon 9 carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded minutes after launch on Sunday, a reminder of the thin margin between success and catastrophe for rocket launches.

A cash award like the XPrize can attract several times the amount in investment, lend legitimacy to an idea and help define achievable goals, according to Peter Diamandis, the founder of the award. Winning also requires a viable business model that can keep the project alive after the prize money is spent.

Hakuto, named after a folk tale about a moon rabbit, plans to sell data gathered by its Moonraker rover to domestic and overseas space agencies. The vehicle is propelled by four wheels studded with paddles to gain purchase on the moon's fine-grained dust. The design has already won a US$500,000 milestone prize from Google for mobility.

Its body is carbon fiber composite, designed to protect the largely consumer-grade electronics inside from the extremes of lunar temperature. A 360-degree camera for gathering detailed images sits atop the rover, Mr Hakamada said.

Nasa's own images date back to Apollo missions more than 40 years ago and have a resolution of about half a meter, comparable to that of Google Maps. Moonraker's camera offers definition that's almost a million times greater. The US space agency has already said it's prepared to pay private companies US$30 million for fresh data.

Because the team has no rockets, it's entered into a prize- sharing agreement with an XPrize competitor to get to the moon. Hakuto, which estimates its total cost at US$10 million, is looking to create a minimum viable product for lunar exploration and would consider breaking even a success, Mr Hakamada said.

It is hitching a ride to the moon with Astrobotic Technology, whose Griffin craft is capable of completing the trip to lunar surface from Earth's orbit. Once there, the competing rovers will start the 500-meter dash for Google's money.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic styles itself as lunar FedEx and plans to make money by ferrying scientific and commercial missions to the moon. Among Griffin's cargo is a can of Pocari Sweat, a sports drink made by Japan's Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. The container is fashioned as a time capsule. Another passenger is Celestis, a space burial company whose customers included Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and counterculture icon Timothy Leary.

"The cost to get to space is coming down dramatically," said John Thornton, chief executive officer of Astrobotic. "That's why a lunar logistics company can actually make money, something that even 15 years ago would be considered science fiction." Cash rewards have spurred innovation before. An 18th century navigation device for determining a ship's longitude at sea was developed in pursuit of a prize.

The lunar competition is inspired by the Orteig Prize, which in 1927 gave US$25,000 to Charles Lindbergh for the first non-stop solo flight between New York and Paris.

The race, and the resulting media frenzy, helped jump start long-distance aviation commerce, according to Joe Jackson, whose "Atlantic Fever" chronicles the events. Within a year of Lindbergh's feat, the number of planes in the country quadrupled while that of airline passengers rose 30-fold, according to Nasa.

"It was a lucky convergence of technology, personalities and finance, and you have some of those elements now," Mr Jackson said in a phone interview. "People's attention is grabbed by these kinds of victory-or-death situations, even if the life at stake this time is a robot's."