February 19, 2011

Lunar X PRIZE Teams Announced

The Lunar X PRIZE Foundation, sponsored by Google, has confirmed the final line-up of 29 teams that will vie for the $30 million robotic Moon-explorer challenge.

The $20 million grand prize will go to a team that can be the first to build, launch and place a lunar vehicle on the Moon's surface that explores two locations a third of a mile apart. The vehicle must transmit high-resolution images of both locations back to Earth. The second team to accomplish the task will win $5 million. The teams have until December 31, 2015 to accomplish the feat.

Organizers of the competition are hoping to encourage the development of low-cost robotic space exploration.

"The official private race to the Moon is on," Peter Diamandis, chief executive of the X-Prize Foundation, said in a statement.

The teams come from 17 countries, making up a wildly divergent background, ranging from non-profit groups and universities to well-funded businesses.

Among the teams: The Penn State Lunar Lion team. It is composed of engineers and scientists from across the University who are aiming to be the first to land a vehicle on the moon and videotape the two distinct locales.

If all works out how it is planned, the Penn State team will build a lander that will be launched by a commercial launch service. The lander will travel for five days toward the Moon, where it will touch down. Once it captures and transmits images and video of the area around the landing zone, it will travel roughly 1,700 feet to another landing location and capture and transmit more images.

"Penn State has the breadth of technical expertise to tackle this challenge," said President Graham Spanier in a statement.

"This project also will offer numerous opportunities for faculty and students from across the University to collaborate on achieving a common goal and will showcase the expanse of Penn State's expertise in the sciences and engineering," he said.

Spanier noted that the team's share of the funding for the project will come from philanthropy, corporate sponsors and scientific partners in the private sector. There may also be up to 10 percent funding allowed from the government.

Several teams have already signed up for rides for their lunar vehicles if they should make the deadline.

Astrobotic Technology, a spin off-off from Carnegie Mellon University has signed a deal with SpaceX - the private space company set up by PayPal founder Elon Musk - to use its Falcon 9 rocket.

Other teams, including a joint venture from a Russian and Indian team, and a separate one from China are scheduled to set off for the Moon in 2013.

While some governmental agencies are also vying to send lunar vehicles to the Moon, backers of the X-Prize challenge think the future of space exploration will be driven by the private sector.

"The most successful and revolutionary discoveries often come from small, entrepreneurial teams," said Tiffany Montague, of Google Space Initiatives.


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