Google: To the moon, people, to the moon

Calling all space geeks. Google. and the X Prize Foundation Thursday announced the US$30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

The contest, which is open to all private firms from around the world, is looking for someone to build and land a privately funded spaceship on the moon in just over five years, according to a statement. The spaceship will include a robotic land rover that must then complete several missions -- including roaming at least 500 meters and sending videos, images and data back to Earth. The public will be able to view the images and data on the Google Lunar X Prize Web site.

"The Google Lunar X Prize calls on entrepreneurs, engineers and visionaries from around the world to return us to the lunar surface and explore this environment for the benefit of all humanity," Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said in the statement. "Having Google fund the purse and title the competition punctuates our desire for breakthrough approaches and global participation."

The US$30 million prize money is divided up; there's a $20 million grand prize, a US$5 million second prize and $5 million in bonus prizes.

If no one reaches the moon by Dec. 31, 2012, the grand prize drops to US$15 million. The contest will end on Dec. 31, 2014, unless Google and the X Prize Foundation decide to extend it.

To win the second prize, a team must land its spacecraft on the moon, then rove and transmit data back to Earth. The second place prize money will be available until Dec. 31, 2014, unless the contest is extended. Teams can win bonus prizes by completing additional missions such as roving longer distances, discovering water or ice, and/or surviving through a frigid lunar night, which equates to approximately 14.5 Earth days.

"Why does Google love space? Well, for one thing, we just think it's cool," Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering at Google, said in a blog post. "More seriously, space exploration has a remarkable history of producing technological breakthroughs, from ablative heat shields and asteroid mining to invisible braces and Tang; the X Prize, too, could lead to important developments in robotic space exploration, a whole host of new Space Age materials, precision landing control technology and who knows what else."

Eustace said Google hopes the contest will help drum up public interest in fields such as math, engineering and computer science -- especially among the young people.

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