So, what is the connection between Google and the moon? Google is backing one of the world’s most technologically advanced and challenging as well as financially rewarding competitions – the Lunar X prize.

October 2nd sees the gathering of many space engineers and business executives on the Isle of Man to be a part of the competition which has a $20m (£12.6m) award. The prize goes to the first team that builds, successfully lands and directs the journey (more than 500 meters) of a robot rover craft. Competition organisers hope to inspire exploration of the moon by encouraging investment from the private industrial sector. The deadline for the full prize is 2012.

It has been reported that NASA currently estimate the costs of landing a robot rover on the moon at over $1bn. Julian Ranger, one of the financiers behind Astrobotic, a strong competitor, claims that they can get the costs down to under $50m. He states that this is “a price tag that will transform lunar exploration and make the moon a target for all sorts of commercial operations.” The Astorobotic rover has also been designed to carry people’s ashes to the moon and carry out numerous other experiments. Their plan involves landing the rover near the landing of Apollo 11 in 1969 in the Sea of Tranquillity. As well as this, they are hoping to make a 3D high-definition film of their journey, which if nothing else is hoping to prove to non-believers that the Apollo mission took place.

The motivation for the Google Lunar X prize came as a result of the success of the Ansari X prize, which launched in 1996 in order to encourage private ventures in manned space travel. Burt Rutan, an aeronautical engineer, won this $10m prize, with his SpaceShipOne craft. It was flown to the edge of space twice within a month in 2004. The technology behind this is now being used to create Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic fleet of spaceships, which are due to start carrying people into space by 2012 witch tickets priced at $200,000.

December 2012 is the deadline for the full $20m prize, after which the prize money will fall to $15m. If all teams are unsuccessful by 2014, organisers state that the project may be abandoned. There are also bonus prizes added to the main prize, if for example, a rover not only travels 500m over the lunar landscape but also endures the cold of a 14 day-long lunar night an extra $4m is earned. There is also a second prize worth $5m.

22 teams have put their names forward for the competition. Teams include Odyssey Moon, employers of a number of former senior NASA staff and who have been talking with Colin Pillinger, the British designer of Beagle 2. There are also teams from Spain and Italy with designs ranging from the rover hopping to crawling over the lunar landscape. Currently the precise rules of the competition are undefined which is a chief issue to be addressed. Ranger states that “the organisers and competitors need to work out how they share out the revenue generated by the flights. That is what we are going to do this week at our meeting. Then it will be a matter of raising the money – and flying to the moon.”

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