Google Sets Sights on the Moon

By Lawrence Walsh  |  Posted 2008-02-22 Print this article Print

One giant step for Google? The search company is giving away money for a robotic moon landing.

Google is going to the moon, seriously.

In the latest of wacky, unconventional initiatives, the search giant unveiled the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $30 million to the first privately funded team to put a robotic probe on the moon’s surface that beams back pictures and other data before Dec. 31, 2014.

Why the moon? Google says on its Web site: “Because space exploration has historically produced much of the scientific community's most ambitious research.  And because the moon can be a resource for the Earth, being composed of some of the most important elements.”

Moon mission are back in vogue around the world. No human has step foot on the lunar surface since 1972 when the last Apollo mission concluded. NASA has plans to return man to the moon by 2020. China is aggressively pursuing a space program to put a sinonaut on the moon. And Britain, Russia and other spacefaring nations have lunar missions on the drawing board.

A number of privately funded space programs are already in the works, as well, since Burt Rutin won the elusive XPrize in 2004 by putting a manned craft in suborbit. Since then, Richard Branson has established Virgin Galactic which aims to ferry private citizens into orbit. And Galactic Suites claims its on target to open the first orbital hotel by 2012, in which guests will pay upwards of $4 million for three-day stays.

Google says Lunar XPrize is about stimulating education, as well as scientific and technological innovation.

“The Google Lunar XPrize's mission is twofold: Apart from stimulating private research and development of a lunar robotic lander, the Lunar XPrize also hopes to stimulate interest in space and space exploration through motivating private groups around the world to develop technology that can used by all of humanity,” the company wrote on its Web site.

While several teams are in the hunt for the prize, the contest is fraught with challenges. The Apollo program cost the U.S. more than $10 billion, and required nearly 10 years and a half-million people to overcome the numerous technical and logistical challenges. While privately funded craft have made it to suborbit, between 160 and 2,000 kilometers, only government-funded or backed craft have escaped Earth orbit.

Even if a private team lands on the lunar surface, they won’t be the first robotic probe there. The Soviet Union accomplished the unthinkable in 1970 by landing a remote-controlled rover on the Moon. Lunokhod 1 and 2 performed well beyond their design specifications and life expectancies. The Lunokhod program also required nearly a decade of development work and the first attempt in 1969 failed when Lunar 17 rocket exploded shortly after takeoff.

The Lunokhod was so far ahead of its time that mobile robotic probes weren’t attempted again until 1997 when NASA successfully landed the Sojourner and Pathfinder rovers on Mars.


Lawrence Walsh Lawrence Walsh is editor of Baseline magazine, overseeing print and online editorial content and the strategic direction of the publication. He is also a regular columnist for Ziff Davis Enterprise's Channel Insider. Mr. Walsh is well versed in IT technology and issues, and he is an expert in IT security technologies and policies, managed services, business intelligence software and IT reseller channels. An award-winning journalist, Mr. Walsh has served as editor of CMP Technology's VARBusiness and GovernmentVAR magazines, and TechTarget's Information Security magazine. He has written hundreds of articles, analyses and commentaries on the development of reseller businesses, the IT marketplace and managed services, as well as information security policy, strategy and technology. Prior to his magazine career, Mr. Walsh was a newspaper editor and reporter, having held editorial positions at the Boston Globe, MetroWest Daily News, Brockton Enterprise and Community Newspaper Company.

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