Google to the moon

US$20 million for anyone who can send a robot there

Google wants to give you US$20 million. All you have to do is build a robot and send it to the Moon.

Google and the X Prize Foundation Thursday challenged private companies from around the world to a "robotic race to the Moon."

To win the grand prize of US$20 million, "a team must successfully soft land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, rove on the lunar surface for a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit a specific set of video, images and data back to the Earth."

The US$20 million Google Lunar X PRIZE is available until the end of 2012. After that the top prize will drop to US$15 million and would expire at the end of 2014. There's also US$5 million for second place and another US$5 million in bonus prizes. Bonuses are available for roving long distances, imaging manmade artifacts like Apollo hardware, discovering ice or surviving the frigid lunar nights that last two Earth weeks.

Yes, humans have been to the Moon already. And robotic rovers are cruising on Mars. But Google says it hopes the contest will renew interest in math, engineering and computer science, especially among youth.

"Why does Google love space?" Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering, wrote in the company's blog. "Well, for one thing, we just think it's cool. 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."

Exploring the Moon could help humans learn about the Earth's geologic past, provide a platform for seeing more deeply into space, and even provide clean energy that could help solve the global-warming problem, Google said.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy have experimented for three decades with ways to capture solar energy in space and use it back home. It hasn't happened because of the high cost of launching materials past Earth's gravity.

"If lunar material is used for space construction, clean energy could be supplied on a 24-hour basis without carbon dioxide or other hazards to the biosphere," Google and the X PRIZE Foundation ambitiously wrote in their announcement.

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Jon Brodkin

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