Space travel used to be all about politics, research and development. It was all about, could we get to the moon and set foot there?

Since the first moon landing in 1969, research has gone further. There have been satellites launched that orbit and feed back information and data. There are space stations and there have even been attempts to land vehicles on Mars.

Virgin Galactic is extending the exploration into space tourism, but typically this type of research and development has been firmly in the hands of governments or the super wealthy.

Enter Google’s Lunar X Prize. A $30m competition to land a privately funded robot on the moon. It’s designed to inspire the development of robotic space travel on a budget. Competitors are fighting to win a grand prize of $20m to land their robot on the moon and then travel 500 metres. Each team must

  • Land a robot safely on the moon
  • Move 500 metres on, above or below the Moon’s surface and
  • Send back HDTV mooncasts of the feat.

And the task has to be completed by 31st December 2016. Teams have to have a launch contract in place by the end of 2015, and they then have 1 year to complete. There are other prizes too and also some milestone prizes along the development path.

35 Teams from around the world have entered. Some are completely made up of team members from one country, whilst others have mixed international teams. The US has a total of 13 teams entered.

The recent milestone prizes were awarded to teams who could display strong development for landing, mobility and imaging. Pensylvania based team Astrobotic was the first to claim 2 of those awards; a $500,000 dollar mobility milestone award for their robot Andy, and a $250,000 imaging milestone prize for their lunar camera systems.

However, whilst competition is fierce, according to Astrobotic, the mission is not just about winning the Google prize money. In fact, the financial investment and risk costs needed for a mission to the moon don’t really stack up against the prize money. This is more about developing viable and profitable business space models.

In the past if you wanted to do any sort of space experiment, you would take your idea to the scientific community and then convince them, that you have the best science methods available. Then you would go to another agency or the government and convince them to spend the money to implement your idea or experiment. In all likelihood there’ll be political input too. A very long and very costly process.

The service offerings that this competition will bring (offerings which Astrobotic think they already have in hand) means that the cost of doing smaller scale research and development on the moon will come down dramatically. This opens up new markets to the companies involved.

To see who else won milestone prizes and learn more about the Google Lunar X Prize competition go to the Google Lunar X Prize site.

Read a more in depth interview with Astrobotic’s CEO John Thornton here.

Image Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

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