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Beyond Low Earth Orbit

February 22, 2011

Robot explorers have ventured beyond low Earth orbit on scientific missions for decades, but it is still an expensive and relatively uncommon undertaking. However, “properly incentivized, the private industry can help make access to [the moon and beyond] low-cost and routine,” says William Pomerantz, the senior director of space prizes at the X Prize Foundation.

The biggest incentives the foundation is offering come in the form of a competition among privately funded teams to launch a lunar exploration robot by 2015. The competition, sponsored by Google, will award $20 million to the first team to land, travel 500 meters, and send images and video back to Earth; $5 million to the second team to achieve those objectives; and $5 million worth of bonus prizes for achievements such as visiting an Apollo mission site. Nearly 30 teams have entered the Google Lunar X Prize competition; their estimated median mission budget is $50 million to $75 million. The prize money won’t cover the costs for most of the entrants (in the original X Prize competition, the winner spent over $25 million to capture a $10 million award for the first private spacecraft), but sponsors are chasing the potential for glory and commercial spin-offs.

Although the competition is focused on encouraging private investment, NASA is paying close attention, says John Olson, a director in NASA’s Exploration Systems Division. “We have a mutual interest in achieving more affordable and sustainable space exploration, and the competition is critical to that,” he says. The agency has agreed to buy mission data from six teams.

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