Robots on the moon: Google Lunar XPrize

14 July 2014

Interview with

Anita Heward, Google Lunar XPrize

It's not just commercial missions which are considering a trip to the Moon: many Moon roverscientific missions are being planned as well.

7 years ago, Google announced their Lunar X initiative: a 30 million dollar prize fund to reward anyone who could send a robot to the moon, move it 500 metres across the surface and beam back footage for us earthlings to enjoy.

There are now 18 teams in the running and, with any luck, some of them be blasting off moonwards in the next 18 months.

Anita Heward from the Google Lunar XPRIZE spoke with Kat Arney.

Anita - First of all, I just want to clarify that the prize money has been put up by Google. So, they put up this prize purse of $30 million, but the prize actually operated by XPRIZE which is a not for profit foundation which puts up these prizes for to encourage all kinds of technology breakthroughs for mankind.

Kat - So, with these lunar robots, who's building them and what are they up to so far because 18 months doesn't seem a long time away to me?

Anita - No. So, they've had since 2007 and obviously, they've had quite a challenge because with the financial crash, raising the money is one of their biggest hurdles, particularly raising the money for the launch vehicle. But as you said, we've got 18 teams in the running and they come from all over the world. We've got 4 based in the US, 1 in Canada, 2 in South America, we've got 6 in Europe. So actually, Europe is doing quite well with this, sadly, not in the UK. No teams in the UK. We have teams in Israel, India and Japan, and Malaysia. So, we've got a very global spread and they come from all kinds of different backgrounds. I mean, it's very interesting for me, having come from the scientific community, having a certain set of people. But I mean, the people that are involved in the XPRIZE comes from all kinds of different backgrounds. We've got teams that are led by architects, people that come from software engineering backgrounds. So, it's a very different perspective and all of them have one thing in common which is to set up some kind of business which involves going to the moon.

Kat - So, people around the world, they're making these robots. They're presumably going to have to launch them in some kind of way. How do you go about getting a rocket onto the moon? Do some people have strong plans for this?

Anita - They do and it's a big challenge. Within the 18 teams, we have quite a broad spectrum of ways of approaching that. We probably have about half a dozen that are actually aiming to do the whole mission. So, they're securing their launch slot and getting into lunar orbit and then landing on the moon themselves, and then deploying their robot. Their robot doesn't have to actually rove 500 meters. It can take off and fly again or it can roll.

Kat - Bouce around.

Anita - It can do all kinds of ways, but many of the teams are just focusing on that mobility vehicle, that final stage on the moon. And so, they're actually buying a launch slot off one of the other teams. And so, what's quite exciting is we could end up with sort of like a race on the moon with 5 robots or rovers deployed at the same time and then we have to...

Kat - Just battling it out up there.

Anita - Absolutely.

Kat - This does sound absolutely brilliant. I mean, it is an impressive challenge and one of the things in it is they have to be beaming back videos. So in theory, in 18 months, we could have MoonTube coming to us.

Anita - That's right. I mean, the images that we have actually from the surface of the moon, the Apollo images that are so familiar to us, they're all a bit grainy and 1960-sy. What will be exciting about, what we'll see back from the Google Lunar XPRIZE teams is that, that will be real high definition imagery of the moon. They have to send back a panorama, they have to send back video of their journey, traveling 500 meters, and of wherever have they end up. And so, you'll see an up to date view of the moon, a high definition view of the moon which hopefully, will kind of give you a better perspective of what is actually like to be there.

Kat - Not a great party. There's not a lot of atmosphere, I've heard. Maybe you could tell me about maybe one of the most exciting or the most intriguing things that you've heard one of the teams are up to. What's hot in this field?

Anita - So, the team try to do different things. We have teams that their long term business goal is to set up infrastructure on the Moon. So, to setup networks of power and communications so that then the opportunity for what you can actually do on the lunar surface then becomes much broader, much greater so for mining water and exploration. You can then deploy a whole load of little rovers that can go and explore. But we also have teams that are looking at going to lacus mortis - the lake of death, where we've discovered recently, the Japanese satellite Kaguya in 2009 discovered that there were these lava tubes underneath the surface of the moon. There are these caves that you can actually get down into them. We have two teams that are looking to go to this area where they will actually go and explore these caves. They're Astrabotic and Hakuto our Japanese team, and the Japanese team has got this incredibly cool dual rover which has a big rover called Moonraker and a little rover called Tetris which is going to actually abseil down into the cave on a tether and then do some mapping underneath the lunar surface. So, I mean, that will be a whole new view of moon.

Kat - This is for serious science and exploration. It isn't just for laugh and YouTube videos, isn't it?

Anita - No, absolutely. They are looking to do exploration that hasn't been done before. Another team, Moon Express is looking to deliver a precursor optical telescope to the south pole of the moon. I mean, there is so much opportunity for the science community with this sort of new commercial access to the moon that rather than having to wait 10 years for a space agency to develop a mission and then have it cancelled at the last minute, you can actually just go out and pay one of these teams to take your instrument there within a few months.

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