Buzz has been building over the past few days about what will be the next X Prize. If you don’t know what the first X Prize was all about, skip down a bit. The new Google Lunar X Prize was announced today. The prize purse is $20 million for the grand prize winner, $5 million to a second place winner and $5 million split amongst several bonus prizes. The goal is a soft-landing on the moon with a robotic craft which then must signal back to Earth. The rover must roam around for at least 500m before sending the “Mooncast”.
The soft landing is a very important constraint on this prize because the current approach with the
Mars rovers won’t work. Currently, the idea with the Mars rovers is to protect the rover inside an entry vehicle. The entry vehicle has a heat shield which prevents it from being damaged (or burning up) in Mars’ atmosphere. Once at an appropriate altitude the parachute would deploy and finally airbags would prevent damage during the actual landing.
Martian atmosphere is thin, but on the moon, there is essentially none at all, so the parachute approach will be useless. An approach similar to that taken by the original moon landings will be necessary, which could signficantly add to the costs of the trip. However, unlike the moon lander, there is no return trip.
The bonus prizes are worth noting as well. They include:
- roving more than 5 km
- imaging man made artifacts, (e.g. items left from the Apollo missions)
- discovering water ice
- surviving a lunar night (which is about 14.5 earth days, the same time it takes to go from full moon to new moon).
And yes, I teared up again.
The First X Prize
If you’re not familiar with the first X Prize (known as the Ansari X Prize), it was a $10 million award to the first team who could successfully launch a reusable manned spacecraft vessel into space twice in two weeks. These are private teams, mind you, not government. The significance of this prize was driving innovation on reusable spacecraft, not just use-once. The shuttle is reusable but is not capable of launching itself into space without the help of the boosters. It’s basically a plane sitting on top of a mountain of fuel. The challenge then was to build a spaceship that could carry fuel and a human into space and back in the same ship. This prize was won by a craft designed by Burt Rutan and funded by the co-founder fo Microsoft, Paul Allen.