x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Looking for new stars among space race contenders

President Kennedy told the world: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Now, Google has decided it is time for a new strategy for exploring the Moon.

Google is offering $30 million as the Google Lunar X Prize, a reward for the first privately funded robotic rover vehicles to land on the moon. Pawel Dwulit / The National
Google is offering $30 million as the Google Lunar X Prize, a reward for the first privately funded robotic rover vehicles to land on the moon. Pawel Dwulit / The National

At the dawn of the space age, John F Kennedy, the then US president, told the world: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Almost half a century later, Google has decided it is time for a new strategy for exploring the moon, which it believes is a vast untapped resource. The internet search giant is offering US$30 million (Dh110.1m) as the Google Lunar X Prize, a reward for the first privately funded robotic rover vehicles to land on the moon. It is hoped that the first of the new private-sector moon landings will be as early as 2013.

There are now 28 business "teams" from around the world that have come forward with what they believe will be financially sustainable projects.

"The technical challenges of the Google Lunar X Prize will encourage solutions which will ultimately benefit both the public and private sectors," says Hem Raheja, a Google spokesman.

"Space exploration has produced incredible technological advancements and has greatly increased our knowledge and understanding of the Earth, solar system and universe."

The US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) says it will buy $30m worth of data from projects competing in the scheme. According to the scheme's organisers, the X Prize Foundation, technological advances made by the competing teams should allow Nasa and other space agencies to save money, therefore facilitating future manned and unmanned moon missions.

But the purse of $30m is nevertheless tiny in relation to the costs associated with space exploration, as is Nasa's current financial commitment. This means that all the schemes will have to be viable businesses in their own right. This is in stark contrast to the 1960s, when the US and the USSR sank truly astronomical sums in trying to outdo one another in space, culminating in the first manned mission to land on the moon on July 20, 1969.

There are also huge technical difficulties that any cost-conscious company will find it hard to budget for. Making the journey from the Earth to the moon is divided into three steps: entering the Earth's orbit; travelling to lunar orbit; and, finally, landing on the surface of the moon. Many of the competing teams are buying commercially available launch technology to accomplish the first stage then using a combination of custom-built systems and commercially available components to complete the following two.

But despite the overwhelming challenges presented by self-funding space exploration, almost 30 different organisations around the world believe they can launch a financially sustainable moon landing project. Schemes range from making money by beaming 3D imagery to Earth from the surface of the moon to running a FedEx-style service for lunar deliveries. It is expected that the competing teams will each spend up to $100m.

Google is adamant that private enterprise should be allowed to run this new era of space exploration and not government funding. It has therefore made it a rule of the Lunar X Prize that governments are prohibited from participating directly and from being the primary financiers of teams.

But there are other restrictions. Although Google and the X Prize Foundation say they believe that no one nation, gender, age group or profession has a monopoly on creativity or intelligence, the US has ruled that nationals and residents of Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria and other people and entities restricted by US export controls and sanctions programmes are not eligible to participate.

Many of the teams allowed to compete for the prize have preposterous names such as Mystical Moon, Rocket City Space Pioneers and Part-Time Scientists. But foolish-sounding team names can be deceptive.

The Part-Time Scientists team, for example, is based primarily in Germany and draws on its members from a variety of technical disciplines including physics, information technology, electrical, mechanical and software engineering. As well as developing an innovative lunar lander and rover, the team is helping to create what it claims will be an innovative new communications network.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Russia and the US almost bankrupted themselves in their national efforts to gain the lead in space. But Google's strategy for lunar exploration is a product of the laissez-faire free-enterprise internet era rather than the more centralised approach of the last space age.

The private-sector teams now trying to compete to get to the moon first read like a list of dotcom internet startups. This new era of lunar exploration is also referred to by geeks around the world as "Moon 2.0", a reference to "Web 2.0", IT shorthand for the next incarnation of the internet.

The challenge now is to spot the Facebooks and Googles of the new space race from among all the other new and soon-to-be-forgotten contenders.

business@thenational.ae