NASA may double the Google Lunar X Prize, begin "Project M"

Friday, November 20, 2009

That's a rumour you can read about here that, if true, would be a phenomenal boost to the Google Lunar X Prize. The prize is a total of $30 million awarded to any company that is able to do a number of tasks including landing on the Moon, moving 500 metres and sending high-res pictures and video back (that's $20 million), as well as another $5 million for some other tasks such as driving farther and finding water. The other $5 million is the second prize, so a smaller but still significant incentive for another company to send their probe even if they aren't first.

The reason why a doubling of the prize by NASA would be such a big deal is because the up to $25 million that a company can win isn't even enough to recoup the expenses for the mission, so it's certainly an incentive but it wouldn't be profit. With a doubling of the prize it's possible that a company could make a tidy profit off of the venture on top of the acclaim from being the first private company to succeed in sending a probe to the surface of the Moon. An extra $30 million is also quite a small amount of money for NASA, not even half of the money it cost to send up their cheapest probe in recent history, Lunar Prospector (that was $62.8 million).

The other interesting rumour is about something called "Project M", which would be a project to send a lander to the surface of the Moon within 1000 days, and it would be done entirely within NASA instead of by using contractors as they do for other missions.

Though funding is tight right now, a concentration on unmanned exploration of the Moon might be a wise gamble for NASA, as a real turnaround in public interest regarding the Moon could be a game changer for them. I'm of the opinion that the reason much of the public is jaded towards the idea of exploring the Moon is due to the fact that the only images we have of the surface are from the 60s and late 70s, and of course it's difficult to remain excited about that. Japan's Kaguya received a lot of attention however for its particularly detailed views of the Moon, and a view from the surface similar to those the Mars rovers send back will be even more exciting than that.

Luckily, other nations will also be helping out at around this time. Russia plans to send a rover to the surface in 2012, and India as well in 2014 (technically launch will be 2013 but it's right at the end of the year) will be sending to - one Russian-made, another by India. Japan also might send a rover in 2012, and China might send one as well in 2013. In other words, if we are lucky enough we may end up seeing a total of seven (!) rovers on the surface just in the next four to five years.

One other thing to note: the Google Trends data has come in and Google's logo on the main page after the discovery was announced brought in a flood of traffic, as clicking on the logo resulted in a search for water on the Moon. This meant that for the day, the search term water on the moon / moon water / etc. brought in more traffic than such terms as obama, spain, and brazil.

The New York Times also has an op-ed here that is worth reading on the discovery of water and what it means.


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