‘X’ Marks the Lunar Prize
Monday, June 18th, 2012
By AJ Plunkett
It’s neither cheap nor easy to build a robot capable of landing safely on the moon — one capable of roving at least 500 meters and transmitting high-definition images and other data from the lunar surface back to Earth.
Yet there are 26 teams representing 46 localities across the world who think they can do it. They also think they can be the first to get there and claim the $20 million grand prize from the Google Lunar X Prize competition.
The point of the Google Lunar X Prize (and similar prizes over hundreds of years)? Innovation.
Competitions have led to innovations such as the accurate measurement of longitude, as well as advances in modern chemistry, aviation, business, and even food preservation (Napoleon needed a way to keep his army fed).
Dozens of innovation contests exist today, with goals both general and specific. Among them are:
NASA Centennial Challenges – Since 2006, NASA has offered prizes ranging from $20,000 to $2 million for innovations in lunar landers, personal air vehicles, “green” aviation, and even for the design a better glove for astronauts. Currently, teams from Canada and the United States are competing for $1.5 million in prizes for designing and building the next generation of autonomous robots sturdy enough to explore “the landscapes of other worlds.”
American Solar Challenge – Held for 20 years, this competition challenges primarily collegiate teams to design, build, and drive solar-powered cars in time and distance rallies across North America. The 2012 challenge is a 1,650-plus mile race from Rochester, N.Y., to St. Paul, Minn.
GMES Masters – Led by the European Union, the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program seeks to make timely information about climate change easily accessible. The prizes vary by category and reward those who can come up with new services, applications, or business models for using GMES data. (Among winners last year was your very own Urthecast, in the T-Systems Cloud Computing category.)
But perhaps the most famous challenges nowadays are those posed by the X Prize Foundation.
The X Prizes challenges began in 1996, with the announcement of the Ansari X Prize, which promised $10 million to whomever in the private sector could build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the Earth — not once, but at least twice in two weeks.
The prize was awarded in 2004 to the builders of SpaceShipOne, a team headed by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen. You might recognize those names – Allen is a co-founder of Microsoft and Rutan is a famed aircraft designer. They announced last December that they are starting a new company named Stratolaunch Systems, in conjunction with SpaceX’s Elon Musk.
Today the X Prize Foundation offers two types of competition in four areas: space or deep ocean exploration, energy and environment, education and global development, and life sciences. The X Prize awards $10 million or more to teams that achieve a specific goal, while the X Challenge offers up to $2.5 million for “solving a well-defined technical problem that has no clear path to a solution.
Besides the Google Lunar X Prize, three other X contests are currently active.
Just announced a few weeks ago, the Nokia Sensing X Challenge is a $2.25 million global competition to “stimulate the development of senors and sensing technology” in healthcare. The sensors would, among other things, provide real-time health monitoring that would interlink with other systems.
The Archon Genomics X Prize will be awarded to the first team to “rapidly, accurately and economically sequence 100 whole human genomes to a level of accuracy never before achieved.” The genomes will be donated by 100 centenarians from around the world, in the hopes of identifying “rare genes” that protect against diseases.
And, finally, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize will go to the team that can create a palm-sized, user-friendly diagnostic device that is capable both of measuring things like blood pressure, respiratory rates, and temperature, and of diagnosing specific diseases “independent of a healthcare professional or facility.”
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.