Dozens of entrepreneurs and space engineers will gather on the Isle of Man tomorrow to finalise plans for one of the world's most technologically ambitious and financially lucrative competitions: the Lunar X prize.
The US$20 million ($27 million) award, which is being backed by Google, will be given to the first company that builds a robot rover craft, lands it safely on the moon, and directs it on a journey of more than 500m across the lunar surface. In doing so, the competition organisers hope to galvanise the exploration of the moon by opening it up to private industry. A deadline of 2012 has been set for all attempts to win the full prize.
"Nasa currently puts the cost of landing a robot rover on the moon at more than US$1 billion," said Julian Ranger, the UK financier who is raising cash for Astrobotic, one of the prize's key competitors. "We believe we can get that cost down to less than US$50 million, a price tag that will transform lunar exploration and make the moon a target for all sorts of commercial operations," he said.
Apart from being able to manoeuvre around the lunar surface, the little Astrobotic rover - which resembles a traffic cone on wheels - has been designed to carry people's cremated ashes to the moon as well as a variety of small experiments. In addition, it is intended to land the probe near the 1969 landing site of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquillity.
"Part of our business plan will be to get our rover to move round the site and take a 3D high-definition film of it," said Ranger, a former engineer, software developer and self-confessed spaceflight fanatic who raised the initial investment that was needed to set up Astrobotic Technology.
"This [footage] would be shown on television around the world. If nothing else, it should prove to the doubters that the Apollo missions really took place."
The Google Lunar X prize has been created following the success of the Ansari X prize. This was established in 1996 to inspire private investment in manned space travel and the US$10 million prize, backed by a number of US foundations, was won by aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan.
His SpaceShipOne craft was flown twice within a month to the edge of space in 2004. That technology is now being used to build Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic fleet of spaceships, which are scheduled to start carrying tourists to space by 2012. Tickets are priced at US$200,000 each.
One of the first customers to fly on the Virgin Galactic will be Ranger.
He said that Astrobotic Technology hopes to build its lander for US$15 million to US$20 million. The company is in negotiation with SpaceX - a private US launch company controlled by the software billionaire Elon Musk - which was recently awarded a US$1 billion contract by Nasa to ferry supplies to the International Space Station.
The deadline for a team to make an attempt to win the full US$20 million Lunar X prize has been set for December 2012. After that, the prize money will drop to US$15 million.
If no project has succeeded by December 2014, the competition will be scrapped - though there is a prospect of an extension, say the organisers. Bonus awards have been added to the prize.
If a rover cannot only travel half a kilometre over the lunar terrain, but survives the cold of a 14-day-long lunar night, an extra US$4 million will be awarded. Another bonus, of US$2 million, will be given if the craft is launched from Florida.
A total of 22 teams have put their names down as competitors for the prize.
- ObserverBy Robin McKie