Google's $27m prize sparks race to get to the moon

NEW YORK - At least a dozen teams are racing to win Google Inc's US$20 million (S$27 million) prize for getting to the moon. They are likely to spend more than seven times that amount, betting the boost to their moon ventures will be worth even more.

Google's Lunar XPrize will go to the first privately funded team to land on the moon, then travel 500m and beam high-definition video back to Earth. Detecting water earns a bonus US$4 million.

Teams in Japan, the United States, Brazil, India and Germany see the race as a chance to grab the lead in a market that consultant London Economics forecasts will be worth US$1.9 billion within a decade.

The competitors envision mining platinum and rare earth elements, setting up habitats using water from lunar polar caps and, eventually, building a launchpad for a mission to Mars.

"We are not in it for the prize alone. The race is there to speed innovation that leads to commercialisation of the moon," said Mr Takeshi Hakamada, whose Tokyo-based Hakuto team is building a lunar rover. "For example, we might explore a lunar cave for possible habitat location. That data would really sell."

A cash award like the XPrize can attract several times the amount in investment, lend legitimacy to an idea and help define achievable goals, according to Dr Peter Diamandis, founder of the award.

Because the Hakuto - which estimates its total cost at US$10 million - has no rockets, it is hitching a ride to the moon with XPrize rival Astrobotic Technology's Griffin in a prize-sharing agreement.

The Griffin is capable of completing the trip to lunar surface from Earth's orbit. Once there, the competing rovers will start the 500m dash for Google's money.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic styles itself as a lunar FedEx and plans to make money by ferrying scientific and commercial missions to the moon. Among Griffin's cargo is a can of Pocari Sweat, a sports drink made by Japan's Otsuka Pharmaceutical. The container is fashioned as a time capsule.

The lunar competition is inspired by the Orteig Prize, which in 1927 gave US$25,000 to Charles Lindbergh for the first non-stop solo flight between New York and Paris.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Google's $27m prize sparks race to get to the moon'. Print Edition | Subscribe