The Moon, the first frontier. It has been decades since humanity has set foot on the Moon. These days we hear more about those original astronauts passing away then we hear about new ventures to our nearest neighbor. NASA has its own plans to send robotic landers to the Moon for exploration, and they currently have a satellite orbiting the Moon, collecting data. The people at Google and XPRIZE have launched their own initiative to encourage commercial companies to invest in space technology with $30 million at stake.
The idea behind encouraging commercial exploration of space is that costs should go down as these companies develop cheaper technology that becomes more widely available. This is all relative, anytime the word space comes up you can rest assured there is nothing cheap about it. Space is unforgiving, the slightest piece of dust or rock can tear man-made objects to shreds; you also need a rocket to shoot anything out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The vast unknowns of space call to the adventurer in all of us, the last decade has shown a greater push to involve commercial companies in space technology as the federal budget for science dwindles in favor of private industry. So we go where the dollars go, to the Moon to harvest rare metals, with the side benefit of whatever technology comes out of these lofty goals. It is unclear if this technology will become available to the public to advance our understanding of the Universe or remain with the companies that patent them.
XPRIZE is a competition that partners with large firms to offer prizes to teams that can meet goals set out in their competition. Along with the Google Lunar competition, there is an IBM Watson challenge and a Shell Discovery competition to name a few. My personal favorite is the Qualcomm Tricorder(!) XPRIZE. You heard me right, a portable, wireless monitor to diagnose health conditions. Hopefully, reducing the need for Bones to say, “He’s dead Jim.”
With $30 million in sight, five companies from around the world received a contract to launch their spacecrafts to the Moon. This includes SpaceIL based in Israel, Moon Express from the United States, an international team called Synergy Moon, TeamIndus from India and a Japanese team called Hakuto. The grand prize is $20 million and the second place prize is $5 million, the balance is made up of milestone and bonus prizes.
In order to win, a team needs to land a craft on the Moon by the end of 2017. But wait, there’s more! The lander has to travel a distance of at least 500 meters, and not just any path, but an ‘interesting path.’ The craft must also transmit video from the Moon as well as some data provided by XPRIZE back to Earth. It must also include a payload to sit on the Moon until someone later on decides they want to check it out and remove whatever data is on the lander. Teams can’t accept more than 10% of their funds from any government entity. There are a host of other requirements and a judging panel that accepts that the guidelines have been met and they select the winners.
Keep your eye on the XPRIZE, we should see the first commercial craft touchdown on the Moon by the end of the year.