Moon Rocketeers Take One Small Step, on Isle of Man
This recent photo of the moon was taken by astronauts on the International Space Station during the Expedition 24 mission mid-2010. It was posted by cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia's Federal Space Agency.
Credit: Roscosmos.

Twenty-two teams, each hoping to win a multimillion-dollar race to land a homemade robot on the moon, are gathering this week on the Isle of Man.

The two-day Google Lunar X Prize Summit, which begins today (Oct. 4) on the island in the Irish Sea, brings together team representatives, officials from Google and the X Prize Foundation and space-industry experts. Teams will make presentations about their missions and discuss the competition's rules and judging procedures.

"We are incredibly excited for this event," said William Pomerantz, senior director for space prizes at the X Prize Foundation, the nonprofit group organizing the lunar contest. "The Google Lunar X Prize has a great deal of momentum now, with an incredible roster of teams and with major agencies such as NASA stepping up to become customers of our teams."

Racing to the moon

The Google Lunar X prize is an international moon exploration challenge to land a robot on the lunar surface, have it travel at least 1,650 feet (500 meters) and send data and images back to Earth. The first privately funded team to do this by Dec. 31, 2012, will receive the $20 million grand prize.

An additional $10 million is set aside for second place and various special accomplishments, such as finding water-ice in lunar craters, bringing the prize's total purse to $30 million.

Teams have until the end of 2010 to throw their hats in the ring. The most recent entrant, a team from Alabama, did so last month.

New team spotlight

The Rocket City Space Pioneers, based in Huntsville, Ala., entered the Google Lunar X Prize competition Sept. 7. The Space Pioneers are composed of seven businesses, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations and are led by Tim Pickens, chief propulsion engineer for the company Dynetics.

In 2004, Pickens was chief propulsion engineer for a team that won a related challenge, the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Pickens served on the SpaceShipOne team. The team, led by aerospace developer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, became the first privately funded group to launch a reusable, manned craft into suborbital space twice within two weeks.

The Space Pioneers say they are designing a lander/rover combination that could be used for commercial and scientific missions on the moon or another planetary body. The Pioneers' lander weighs about 440 pounds (200 kg) and the rover about 22 pounds (10 kg).

According to team officials, the lander and rover, along with a propulsion module, will escape Earth aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 rocket. The propulsion module will then guide the lander and rover into low lunar orbit, at which point it will jettison its two payloads. The lander/rover will conduct a braking maneuver and land softly on the lunar surface.

The rover, which will be tethered to the lander, should be capable of driving at least 0.6 miles (1 km) on the lunar surface.

On the lunar clock

Of the 22 teams vying for the Google Lunar X Prize purse, none has yet launched a probe toward the moon. And the clock is ticking.

Time will run out on the full $20 million grand prize at the end of 2012. However, the competition would continue, with the top prize dropping to $15 million, and with a final deadline of Dec. 31, 2014.