Google, the online everything company, is offering a prize that could reach $30 million to anyone who can send an unmanned vehicle to the Moon, land it there successfully, keep it running through the night, discover ice, transmit data back to Earth, and complete several other interesting tasks by 2012.
Like Google itself, the prize is a bit quirky but certainly inspirational – and probably a cheap way for the company to promote its reputation as a technology trendsetter.
Offering prizes for specific achievements is nothing new. Charles Lindbergh was inspired to fly solo from New York to Paris for one such prize and, more recently, a team headed by Burt Rutan did some sub-orbital space flying to win another. Prizes are good incentives because winners don’t have to commercialize anything; they get their money up front.
According to a summary of the Google Lunar X Prize guidelines, the winning team must land a privately funded spacecraft on the lunar surface and complete a series of specific mission goals. It must roam for at least 500 meters – 1,640 feet to you and me – across the Moon’s surface and send defined digital data packages, called Mooncasts, back to Earth.
The first Mooncast must confirm arrival on the lunar surface, the second is to provide still imagery and video of roving around on the Moon. The two data sets must total roughly a gigabyte of content.
The first team to succeed would win $25 million if the job is done by Dec. 31, 2012, after which the prize drops to $15 million. If no one is successful by the end of 2014 the money could be withdrawn. If a second team succeeds before the deadline, $5 million would be given as a runner-up prize and another $5 million is being reserved for bonus tasks such as roving for longer distances, taking pictures of old lunar spacecraft, finding water ice or surviving the long lunar night.
Google isn’t doing this alone. It is working with the X-Prize Foundation, which already sponsored the prize won by the Rutan team. Google is putting up the purse.
Of course, the prize won’t really cost Google $30 million if it follows X-Prize precedent. Sponsors of the $10 million prize awarded to the Rutan team capped their exposure with an insurance policy, in effect betting against the competitors. In addition, assuming that Google has put the $30 million in escrow and can keep it there to the end of 2014, it should be able to earn interest of more than half the total.
GOOGLE’S JETS BASED ON NASA FIELD
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are taking a lot of flak from media flacks for the deal they struck with NASA to base the company’s Boeing 767-200 and two Gulfstream Vs at Moffett Field, convenient minutes from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Moffett was transferred from the Navy to NASA in the early 1990s, but community opposition has prevented the airport’s use for general aviation or air cargo operations. Google’s founders, however, found a loophole of sorts. They reached an agreement with NASA allowing the agency to place scientific instruments and researchers on the airplanes in return for letting them operate from Moffett.
It looks like a good deal for both parties. For example, NASA used one of the G-Vs for high-altitude observation of the Aurigid meteor shower on Aug. 31 and cites other examples of the symbiotic relationship.