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In Google's Moon Race, Teams Face a Reckoning

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the cheese-mines-should-be-enough-incentive dept.

Moon 74

waderoush writes "The Google Lunar X Prize, announced in 2007, challenges private teams to send remote-controlled landers and robot rovers to the Moon by December 31, 2015. At the moment, 26 teams are still in the running — but organizers say 2012 could be the shakeout year, as many teams realize they can't go it alone or that they can't raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to reserve a launch vehicle. Xconomy talked with officials at Google, NASA, the X Prize Foundation, and two of the competing teams, asking whether the prize is really winnable in the face of the formidable fundraising obstacles the teams face. The piece also looks at the technology being developed by two of the teams (Moon Express and Team FREDNET), why lunar exploration matters to Google, and how Tiffany Montague, Google's manager of space initiatives, is working to improve the teams' chances."

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74 comments

Launch vehicle by NASA? (1)

Lord Lode (1290856) | about 2 years ago | (#39737853)

Just use a katapult!

Re:Launch vehicle by NASA? (2)

durrr (1316311) | about 2 years ago | (#39738121)

I'd recommend that google leases a bunch of spaceX heavy rocket, fills it with all the contestants vessels and drop them off in LEO to let them race eachother to the moon in a no-holds-barred robotic deathrace.

Televised in glorious full HD of course.

Hurr hurr (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39737879)

Did anyone else read that as 'Lunar Sex Prize'?

Herp derp.

Launch vehicle? (4, Funny)

AngryDeuce (2205124) | about 2 years ago | (#39737893)

Just build a space elevator, dummies!

Re:Launch vehicle? (2)

SomePgmr (2021234) | about 2 years ago | (#39737913)

Yeah, can we have that thrown together by next week? You know, we're gunna have to do this on a budget, too... so... you know, make it cheap.

I'm practicing for a job in management. :)

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | about 2 years ago | (#39737951)

So you're gonna write the $6 billion check for that?

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

I Read Good (2348294) | about 2 years ago | (#39738041)

That's an incredible modest figure, actually.

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | about 2 years ago | (#39738107)

Yes, I was being generous to him. $6 billion is the low-range of the fixed costs for the construction. More realistic is easily double that or more.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738187)

$6 billion is the low-range of the fixed costs for the construction. More realistic is easily double that or more.

If you could really build a space elevator for $12 billion dollars or, hell, $24 billion then why hasn't anyone? I can't believe that's anywhere near the realistic range. Even a mid-tier sort of government should be able to scrape together $24 billion - let's make it $50 billion to be really sure. That's chickenfeed.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738269)

Even that isn't much. There were 186 companies http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_companies_by_revenue that made at least that much in revenue last year. Given the huge potential profit of a space elevator, $50B isn't that much.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738273)

AAPL could build two.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738277)

Because there are still known design issues with unknown solutions. This does make the $ estimates fairly irrelevant, but being able to say "as long as there is a way to make non-trivial nanotubes at a cost per inch less than 20 times the current cost per inch, it will be less than $X to build" is still a moderately useful estimate.

And if we believe the hype of many /. articles about the stuff, we'll soon find that hexagonal grid graphene is a superior construction material than carbon nanotubes, and then with a little work the elevator will also serve as a massive conduit of solar-harnesed electricity while also serving as a massive supercomputer.

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | about 2 years ago | (#39738371)

Well of course there are plenty of design issues. The point of my original post was that the person was being extremely silly with the 'just build a space elevator' comment.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738257)

No, you aren't being "generous", you are being silly. For $6 Billion, a private firm would have raised equity to build it by now. The fact is that it is impossible with our current level of technology. We don't have the manufacturing technology, and a few scientists doubt we ever will. Regardless, a Trillion dollars wouldn't be enough to make this happen in five years.

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | about 2 years ago | (#39738327)

No, i'm not. I'm quoting the fixed-costs price range that NASA had someone come up with about 7 years ago. But there is obviously more to the costs than just that. Even more recent estimates are around $20-40 billion. Your trillion dollar estimate is what is silly.

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 2 years ago | (#39738667)

Is that cost estimate before or after we discover unobtainium?

Got a link to that estimate?

If it could be accomplished for any dollar amount work would have already been started on getting it done.

A space elevator is one of those things, that once put in place it will change society as we know it. The benefits are astronomical.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39741663)

No, goofball, you have no clue. The technology doesn't exist. No amount of money is going to build you something that is beyond our current technology level or beyond that of the next generation. If it could be built someone would and they would be enormously wealthy.

Re:Launch vehicle? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738339)

More like a $6 trillion check. Oh, and the suspension of a few pesky laws of physics, as well. Nothing major, just gravity, tensile strength, etc.

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

sortadan (786274) | about 2 years ago | (#39739679)

If it's just a robot why not just shoot it out of a big cannon [wikipedia.org]?

Re:Launch vehicle? (1)

DanielRavenNest (107550) | about 2 years ago | (#39740781)

If you want a cannon, use an actual cannon, and not an electromagnetic accelerator. Pipe is way cheaper than than a series of coils and a frickin huge power supply to feed them. These big electromagnetic launchers leave out the part about how they brown out an entire state when launching. One Space Shuttle engine had the equivalent of 4 Hoover Dams power output (8 GW), or 8 nuclear power plants. The StarTram Generation 1 system will need 53 GW for 30 seconds.

This gun was built in the 1960's and reached orbital altitude but not orbital speed:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_HARP [wikipedia.org]

This one reached 3/8 of orbital speed in the early 1990's

http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/sharp.htm [astronautix.com]

Slightly faster one (1/2 orbital speed) would be a very effective launcher, replacing the whole first stage of a two stage rocket.

Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (1)

Evisscerator (1650377) | about 2 years ago | (#39737965)

We are going to have to move the planet off of the current financial system in order to bring about real work to accomplish goals like this. Money is a ROAD BLOCK to fully achieving success as a PEOPLE and a PLANET Cost is not a factor. It is the willingness and willpower of the People who live here to come together and make it all happen.

Re:Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738105)

Money (wealth really) is also the major motivator for many people. If people are not paid to do work many will not do it. Unless you force them to.

If you want to live like that, there are countries in this world that will let you live like that. I'm sure they would be glad to have you show up and tell them how to live.

Re:Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738129)

Money is a ROAD BLOCK to fully achieving success

These people should have used kickstarter.

Re:Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (2, Informative)

KYPackrat (52094) | about 2 years ago | (#39738161)

Money is nominally a store of the value of people's labor(*). That's why we donate money now: we're giving the "liquid" form of our labor to a charity group, so that they can directly buy the products and labor to fill a need.

The existance of Google's competition directly refute your idea. It's private money being staked by Google and the team sponsors that made this price possible. Even governments have to use taxed money: moving the labor from those taxed so that the people in NASA/ESA/etc. can get fed. Without some way to "move" people's labor efficiently, you can try the North Korea approach (a country of slave labor), but we can all see how efficient that is.

A lot of people have come up with alternate economies, and most just call money by some other term. The rest usually just starve.

(*) In a fractional-reserve system like ours, where money gets "created" when it's borrowed, money is really a promise of future labor instead of a store of past labor. This makes a lot of the characteristics of the current economy a lot easier to understand. (IMHO, you can argue that money is an energy proxy, and that human energy (i.e. labor) will soon be less valuable than other kinds of energy, but that's an entirely different topic.)

Re:Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (1)

Bigby (659157) | about 2 years ago | (#39738839)

The GP is actually proposing that without money, all the reserves could be spent doing things like this. There would be a single entity that redistributes the excess time/resources to "advance" society in certain directions. It is basically communism without money.

In this case, society would produce food/shelter/energy and we would do away with vehicles, vacations, TV, games, entertainment, luxuries, etc... in order to fund a space elevator that may or may not work; and if it works, may or may not amount to anything of value. The wonderful world of central planning.

Re:Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 2 years ago | (#39738905)

(IMHO, you can argue that money is an energy proxy, and that human energy (i.e. labor) will soon be less valuable than other kinds of energy, but that's an entirely different topic.)

Human energy is already less valuable than other kinds. Why do you think we use construction machinery instead of thousands of slaves for mining and road work. Human energy just doesn't have the bang for the buck that a thousand horsepower diesel motor does.

Re:Google's X Prize for those going to the Moon (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 2 years ago | (#39739201)

If you remove the carrot and stick of a currency based society then society is more likely to de-evolve into a land of lotus eaters rather a society of extra-planetary explorers.

One of the big motivators to have more money is so that you can do less.

Lame. (1, Insightful)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 2 years ago | (#39737991)

How, exactly, does this advance science, the public interest, or be anything but a publicity stunt that only the wealthy can participate in? If you're going to 'crowd source' (I despise that phrase), then shouldn't your project be carried out in phases, and as each phase is accomplished a reward is granted to the winning team?

It would be a lot more successful and have more entrants (read: ideas), if the cost of entry wasn't in the tens of millions. Who wants to blow 10 million dollars (or more) to get a 1 in N chance of getting any return on the investment? Poor planning, Google.

Re:Lame. (1)

Tough Love (215404) | about 2 years ago | (#39739089)

You would rather that only governments could participate in big science stunts?

Re:Lame. (1)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 2 years ago | (#39741239)

You would rather that only governments could participate in big science stunts?

No, you blithering half-wit, I want more people to participate in science, not less. It's the closest thing we have to a democratic institution in this country.

Re:Lame. (1)

Tough Love (215404) | about 2 years ago | (#39741409)

Woo, I'm not sure whether I want to talk to you, you seem to have issues. But please explain to me who is going to do a moon shot, who is not independently wealthy, a government, or a major corporation.

Re:Lame. (1)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 2 years ago | (#39741591)

Woo, I'm not sure whether I want to talk to you, you seem to have issues.

Personality is who I am. Attitude is my reaction to you. Don't confuse the two.

But please explain to me who is going to do a moon shot, who is not independently wealthy, a government, or a major corporation.

By dividing the project up into smaller, discrete parts which have a sufficiently low entry cost that private individuals and groups can participate in a meaningful capacity.

Re:Lame. (1)

Tough Love (215404) | about 2 years ago | (#39742013)

Personality is who I am. Attitude is my reaction to you. Don't confuse the two.

I think you're confused about that. And about the concept of social interaction in general.

But please explain to me who is going to do a moon shot, who is not independently wealthy, a government, or a major corporation.

By dividing the project up into smaller, discrete parts which have a sufficiently low entry cost that private individuals and groups can participate in a meaningful capacity.

It won't work. A moon shot is just too big a project to benefit substantively by breaking out a few small parts. By all means, invite participation from one and all but recognize that the core of the project is big and expensive, must be engineered accordingly, and at commensurate cost.

why lunar exploration matters to Google (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738033)

why lunar exploration matters to Google

Oh. My. God. They're going to put ads on the moon.

Re:why lunar exploration matters to Google (2)

Americano (920576) | about 2 years ago | (#39738205)

World's largest billboard.

Re:why lunar exploration matters to Google (1)

sconeu (64226) | about 2 years ago | (#39738679)

Been there, done that.

Re:why lunar exploration matters to Google (1)

Bigby (659157) | about 2 years ago | (#39738875)

Google Maps

Earth's Moon
Your Rating: 4 stars!
You would also like the Rock of Gibraltar

5 other people have +1 Earth's Moon.

Re:why lunar exploration matters to Google (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39740633)

Oh. My. God. They're going to put ads on the moon.

They write about the teams struggling to get funds.

Who else as marketeers want to invest into having a big logo painted on the first "private moon project", as a "front up" investment?

They should seek sponsorship from brands with a planning and budget for a few years up-front.

Walk before you can run. (1)

Picass0 (147474) | about 2 years ago | (#39738143)

Assuming for a moment some of the teams might have experience working on commercial earth satellites, wouldn't it still make more sense to have a few milestone events before going straight the lunar rovers? It's a challenge simply getting a craft into lunar orbit, so maybe start there. Landing on the moon is another big milestone, even without the rover component.

I'd love to see a team win this, but they need to have permission to launch reserved by December. None of these teams has a rocket built/purchased.

Tall order.

railgun (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738147)

A linear maglev accelerator constructed near the equator might do the trick - no rockets required, and use airbags to land. The hardest (most expensive) part is getting to escape velocity (about 25000 mph - about 11 kps). The length of the accelerator will be dependent upon the rate of acceleration that you can get out of the gear. You'd need a good source of electricity, and a bunch of large superconducting capacitors. In any case, you don't have to worry about huge explosive mixtures of gas and chemicals and all the government oversight and permits required for that, and multiple test launch vehicles. You can launch small test payloads at nominal cost to refine things like telemetry, guidance, control systems, etc.

Re:railgun (1)

blueg3 (192743) | about 2 years ago | (#39738297)

I think if your gear could take 50g, which is respectably high, you'd need a 100 km track to accelerate to 11 kps, and that escape velocity doesn't take air resistance into account.

Re:railgun (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 2 years ago | (#39739503)

A rail-gun that can put something in orbit around the Moon can land a warhead anywhere on Earth and with practically no warning.

Re:railgun (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39739527)

A rail-gun that can put something in orbit around the Moon can land a warhead anywhere on Earth and with practically no warning.

No warning aside from the two or three days it takes to get here...

Re:railgun (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 2 years ago | (#39739781)

No warning aside from the two or three days it takes to get here..

It would only take three days if you put it on a trajectory where it goes around the moon, if you are trying to nuke someone with no warning why would you send it around the moon first?

A railgun powerful enough to launch something to the moon is also capable of shooting a smaller payload a shorter distance. And unlike an ICBM it can be fired again, and again, and again.....

Good tool to have though if we do find an asteroid heading at us. In a case like that the more railguns the better.

Re:railgun (1)

RivenAleem (1590553) | about 2 years ago | (#39744733)

Yeah, but if you are firing a nuke to someone on the other side of the planet, slinging it around the moon gives you plenty of time to get to the target so you can see the look on their face as the nuke hits!

Google's manager of space initiatives (1)

dargaud (518470) | about 2 years ago | (#39738347)

Now that's something I'd like to have on my calling card...

Re:Google's manager of space initiatives (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39738831)

definitely.. and when they lay you off from your completely useless position, then you'll be at the top of the list of candidates for the "manager of space initiative" job at every other non-space company.

Re:Google's manager of space initiatives (1)

aaarrrgggh (9205) | about 2 years ago | (#39739797)

Do you think her existing official title of "egalitarian" is any better/worse?

Pioneer anomaly mission? (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 2 years ago | (#39738377)

I wonder if a private party could launch a simple, spin-stabilized probe, with well-understood thermal behavoir, that could be used to test the Pioneer Anomally once and for all....all it would need is a clock/ doppler-pinger and a spin and maybe slingshot out of the solar system... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_anomaly [wikipedia.org]

Speaking as a Team Leader... (3, Interesting)

anzha (138288) | about 2 years ago | (#39738455)

The single biggest problem that any team is facing is getting cash and sufficient cash to pay for a launch. This has been a problem for Astrobotic (and why they have postponed to 2015). This has been an issue for Moon Express. This is an issue for Rocket City Space Pioneers. And, yes, it is an issue for Team Phoenicia (my own team). For FredNet, too. Getting material donations has not been difficult. Just the $. That's why Team Phoenicia has been selling engines and rockets. If you want to help and not just snark, go to your favourite team's website and hit the donate button. They all have them. If /. or any other entity would use the /. effect to that end, it'd be a wondrous and helpful thing.

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39739113)

Has /. endorsed a team? I would consider donating as a group.

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (1)

anzha (138288) | about 2 years ago | (#39740559)

AFAIK, no. If there is someone to talk to about that, point me that way! That'd be awesome and I'd happily list /. as a backer/sponsor. That said, if you are looking for an open source team, you are looking at FredNet. If you are looking for the Silicon Valley big money team, you are looking at Moon Express. If you are looking at the university student/professor teams, you are looking at Astrobotic, PennState, and Omega Envoy. If you are looking for the traditional aerospace guys, you are looking at Rocket City Space Pioneers. If you are looking for very STEM oriented, educator focused, you are looking at JURBAN. If you are looking for the scrappy Silicon Valley startup, that'd be us: Team Phoenicia. There are more. Go to the Google Lunar X Prize website (http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/teams) to check us all out. Take a look at what Mike Doornbos of evadot has to say through his rankings of the teams: http://evadot.com/glxpscorecard/ [evadot.com]

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (1)

Quince alPillan (677281) | about 2 years ago | (#39739159)

You know, you could have provided a link. :)

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (2, Informative)

anzha (138288) | about 2 years ago | (#39740411)

Yes, I could and probably ought to have. http://teamphoenicia.blogspot.com./ [teamphoeni...ogspot.com] The donate button is on the right. :)

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39739613)

Are no teams looking into smaller rovers and landing gear that could be carried by balloon to near-space and then flown via a much, much smaller rocket or other propulsion to the moon from there?

IANRS, but wouldn't this be doable on a much smaller budget?

You're going to need software and hardware control to navigate the journey from near-earth space to the moon and landing anyway, so those problems don't go away, just the massive power required to reach escape velocity in a short period of time. The Mars rovers were HUGE, but a moon rover could be much much smaller, no?

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (1)

anzha (138288) | about 2 years ago | (#39740389)

The Romanians considered the rockoon approach and discarded it. Instead they are building - yes, really! - a rocket powered seaplane to do an air launch of their rocket carrying their moonbot. They are nuts. And they are soooo fscking awesome. The problem with the rockoon is that even once you are outside the atmosphere, you are still subject to the rocket equation of getting to the moon with the delta V. Some things just don't scale down well.

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (1)

sortadan (786274) | about 2 years ago | (#39739865)

What are your thoughts on Evacuated Tube Transport as a launch system for the future, or do you have hopes for some other technology? I realize this may be out of scope for your single launch for the moon, but the ETT technology is a fascinating next step that seems elegant to me as an aerospace outsider with an engineering background and would cut down on the actual launch costs. I wonder why the side of a big mountain near the equator is not already a planning site.

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39746057)

Sounds like the perfect project to put on Kickstarter.com - Sell me an overpriced tee-shirt, you make a little profit and I am now a walking billboard for your cause.

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (1)

anzha (138288) | about 2 years ago | (#39746927)

Kickstarter's highest projects are in the six figure region. Launches are in the eight figures minimum.

Re:Speaking as a Team Leader... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39749633)

Who would have known that the biggest challenge of the biggest X prize in recent years is something that is indirect to the effort (i.e. technology challenges)--

money.

What a waste of money (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39739537)

Why does Google even have a fucking space agency arm? WTF does Google do again? Throw money away at stuff that sounds cool?

Clearly what this race needs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39740271)

is the visionary leadership of Newt Gingrich and Jerry Brown.

Did someone say kickstarter? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39743207)

Cmon, ppl will give you a grand if you in return give them some tshirt and moon dust ... and for a humble donation of 1m you are allowed to dine with the project leaders ;)

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