Google Shoots for the Moon

After pioneering software that allows people to explore Earth in unprecedented detail, Google set its sights on mapping the moon. Now the popular Internet search engine wants to help send a robot there. Yesterday, the Mountain View, California-based company announced that it will sponsor a $30 million prize for the first privately funded lunar robotic rover.

"We are here today embarking upon this great adventure of having a nongovernmental, commercial organization return to the moon and explore," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a statement. "And I'm very excited that Google can play a part in it."

The contest is modeled on the Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million to the first private company to reach suborbital space twice within 2 weeks using a reusable piloted vehicle. Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, won the contest in 2004 and is now building a commercial version for British entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

According to the rules of the Google Lunar X Prize, the winner must be the first to land a spacecraft on the moon that can travel at least 500 meters and send back data, images, and video of the surface. Peter Diamandis, X Prize chair and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, the organization running the Google prize, explained in a statement that he wants to encourage low-cost missions to the moon in order to open the frontier beyond Earth orbit. "It could be another 6 to 8 years before any government returns," he said. "Even then, it will be at a large expense, and probably with little public involvement."

NASA recently canceled a series of rovers--each of which it estimated would cost hundreds of millions of dollars--because of budget constraints. Diamandis says he hopes to lure innovators who normally would not be attracted to typical government space contracts.

A host of government efforts to reach the moon are already under way. Today, Japan's space agency launched a mission from Tanegashima Island. A Chinese spacecraft is slated for liftoff by the end of this year, and a NASA flight will follow next year. All three missions involve orbiters, however, meaning no craft will actually land on the lunar surface. China is also considering sending a rover to the moon early in the next decade in preparation for a possible human landing.

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