I generally keep up pretty well on the news, and this week the X Prize Foundation announced the winners of the Progressive Automotive X Prize. As you might guess from the title of this post, I wasn’t really impressed. Sure, some companies were able to make some cars that got better than 100 miles per gallon, driving at speeds between 45 and 70 mph. I suppose that could technically make them vehicles that might actually be capable of commercial use. But looking closer, it doesn’t seem likely. Three vehicles reached the mark. One was a really lightweight vehicle that combined high percentage ethanol fuel with some batteries. The others were basically electric motorcycles. None of these vehicles would realistically be looked at by any consumers.
But I was really excited by the Ansari X Prize a few years back, and I’m also super excited about a new one which is just getting started called the Google Lunar X Prize. Let’s begin my explanation of this competition by simply pasting in the description of it on the official website:
The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million international competition to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth. Teams must be at least 90% privately funded and must be registered to compete by December 31, 2010. The first team to land on the Moon and complete the mission objectives will be awarded $20 million; the full first prize is available until December 31, 2012. After that date, the first prize will drop to $15 million. The second team to do so will be awarded $5 million. Another $5 million will awarded in bonus prizes. The final deadline for winning the prize is December 31, 2014.
Simply reading that makes it look like the X Prize foundation has gone nuts. A few years ago, they were holding a competition just to get into space, and now they’re trying to get to the moon?!? But wait! This competition isn’t so much about getting there. The Ansari X Prize has already accomplished that feat for them. SpaceX, founded by Paypal millionaire Elon Musk, grew from the Ansari X Prize competition, and has a rocket capable of getting payloads to a lunar orbit, the Falcon 9. The Google Lunar X Prize actually recommends use of SpaceX launch capabilities for the competition, although competitors could choose to go a different route (NASA, Arianespace, among others) if they chose to do so.
This competition is about creating a privately funded lunar lander, as well as a rover of some sort. The competition also requires that the lander send over one gigabyte of data from the surface of the moon to the earth in the form of a “mooncast”. The mooncast includes high resolution 360º panoramic photographs taken on the surface of the moon, self portraits of the rover taken on the surface of the Moon, near-real time videos showing the craft’s journey along the lunar surface, and High Definition (HD) video. “Teams will be required to send a Mooncast detailing their arrival on the lunar surface, and a second Mooncast that provides imagery and video of their journey roaming the lunar surface.”
The Google Lunar X Prize excites me because of it’s ability to excite the public about space again. With Congressional infighting about NASA’s future budget, we can no longer look to the government for space exploration. The X Prize Foundation has managed to create a true privately owned space industry, and the Google Lunar X Prize aims to take it beyond low earth orbit. Success here could lead to great advancements in space, and I find that truly exciting.