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Google Lunar X Prize Teams Now In a Race With China As Well As Each Other 32

MarkWhittington writes "The Google Lunar X Prize rules of competition have a clause that reduces the $20 million grand prize to $15 million for the first private group to land a rover on the lunar surface should a government funded rover land first. The first scheduled government funded rover to land on the moon is the Chinese Chang'e 3. It is slated for a 2013 landing."
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Google Lunar X Prize Teams Now In a Race With China As Well As Each Other

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  • Hasn't this already happened? []

    • by TheLink ( 130905 )

      Many times. [] []
      I guess they mean in recent years?

      To provide an extra incentive for teams to work quickly, the grand prize value will change to $15 million whenever a government-funded mission successfully explores the lunar surface, currently projected to occur in 2013.

      • That doesn't seem very fair. Maybe from Google's elevated position private companies can compete with governments but in reality almost any government can outcompete a company if it really puts its mind to the job, never mind a megastate like China. So the winners are out five million because they don't have the resources of a fifth of the world's population to call on - what was the thinking there?

        • Re:Lunokhod? (Score:5, Informative)

          by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @07:01AM (#41999985)

          The X Prize thing is based on insurance, you realize. Google itself isn't paying the prize. Google is paying an insurance premium, betting that someone will fulfill the conditions of the prize, thereby causing the insurance company to pay out. The insurance company is betting no one will fulfill the conditions of the prize at all, thereby pocketing Google's money and walking away. The clause to reduce the payout if China successfully lands first is part of the deal.

          The first X Prize was established the same way. It's basically a bet, using one of the blue sky insurance companies who will insure things like an actress's legs, and similarly odd things. But blue sky or not, they weren't going to take the deal, or indeed, the first deal, without a hard deadline. The first X Prize had an expiration time. So does the Lunar X Prize.

          The closing date for the competition was originally announced to be Dec 31, 2012 for the 'Grand Prize' of $20M and 2014 for the reduced prize of $15M.[5][6] In 2010 the closing date was extended to Dec 31, 2015.

          That was Google agreeing to pay more premiums, and the insurance company pointing out that China plans to get there before 2015.

          Hard to say if any of the registered teams has a realistic chance or not, despite the offers of a discounted launch from SpaceX and free air time on one of the radio telescopes. The rover itself is hard enough. A lunar transfer vehicle and a lunar lander are each major efforts all their own. This is literally rocket science. Of course, the science itself isn't the problem. An undergraduate can run the numbers to calculate the rocket burns and the orbits. The problem is, it's also rocket engineering. And that's hard enough that even the major aerospace contractors screw it up on a regular basis. Hell, even SpaceX, the darling of Slashdot and geeks everywhere, had an engine blowout during their last Falcon 9 launch. If Elon Musk hadn't studied all the recorded rocket launch failures of history and insisted on a design that could withstand the most common cause of failure, that launch may have been a total failure, instead of fulfilling its primary mission of resupplying the Space Station. The people trying to win the Lunar X Prize don't have to deal with maximum dynamic pressure (Earth's atmosphere) and the full brunt of Earth's gravity, but they do have to deal with vacuum, radiation, Van Allen belts, and the Moon's gravity right down to the surface. It would be a tall order even for SpaceX, and they're building rockets already. The competing teams? Not so much.

          So you see why the insurance company was willing to take the bet. They think the odds are with them, and that they'll get to keep Google's money.

          • Re:Lunokhod? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by mbone ( 558574 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @10:09AM (#42000749)

            Well, more exactly, they think that their expected return is positive. So, if they think that the chance of a full payout was 10%, their premiums are presumably going to total something more than $ 2 million (minus a little bit for the present value of future money, which is always 1). Insurance works by making many such bets, and getting right on a large enough aggregate.

            My understanding is that the first X Prize was funded on the cheap, as the Insurance company really didn't think they would ever have to pay out. That is not likely to happen again.

            • Re:Lunokhod? (Score:5, Informative)

              by Teancum ( 67324 ) <[ten.orezten] [ta] [gninroh_trebor]> on Friday November 16, 2012 @03:07PM (#42004013) Homepage Journal

              The original X-Prize (before the Ansari family became involved I should note too... that didn't happen until nearly when the prize was awarded) was composed of donations from the space/geek community to help fund the prize. It was sort of a Kickstarter idea that happened before Kickstarter even existed, and over the first few years received a respectable amount of money into the donation pool, but not really the $10 million that was supposed to be awarded. There wasn't even any time limit on when you could win the award, with the assumption that the longer it took to win the prize that more people would donate and interest would compound the existing donations.

              That worked for several years, but Peter Diamandis became aware of the "Hole-in-One" policies for events like golf tournaments (where the term originates... with defined rules where people in tournaments compete to see if they win a hole-in-one on a golf course and the insurance company pays up if somebody succeeds). It turned out that with the donations received to about the date that Mr. Diamandis looked into such policies, that he had enough to pay the premium and set a "reasonable" deadline for when the prize needed to be won. All of the active teams at the time supported the move, even though it meant that they needed to double down and really work to win the prize.

              It should be noted that other than Scaled Composites, nobody else was really ready to win. ARCA (the Romanian team), Armadillo Aerospace, and a couple of other groups have subsequently fired actual hardware that might have won given a little more time, but they would have all likely missed the deadline and the insurance policy would have expired (Armadillo was a bit closer though). It certainly wasn't a guarantee that any team would have won.

              The insurance company who underwrote the policy did offer to refund the money for the policy with a high interest rate if the X-Prize Foundation wanted to back out... especially after it looked like Scaled Composites was likely going to win. Obviously they didn't.

              As for if an insurance company would offer a similar policy on a future space prize contest, I'm sure they will take into account the experience of the original X-Prize into consideration.

          • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

            So can you explain why Google went the insurance route, instead of just setting aside $20m from it's bank account. $20m is peanuts to them, in fact one of the owners alone could put it up.

            Actually the whole thing seems like a weird idea. It will cost a lot more than $20m to get a rover onto the moon so presumably anyone attempting it will be expecting bigger profits from commercialization of the technology.

            • So can you explain why Google went the insurance route, instead of just setting aside $20m from it's bank account.

              The simple business principle: always use other people's money.

              Strange as it may sound to people who aren't rich, this is a well known principle. Indeed, a principle that's explicitly taught. It's the reason why there is a stock market and a bond market—indeed, it's the reason why there are stocks and bonds themselves. Both of those financial instruments are methods of getting your hands on other people's money and doing what you want with it.

              Unfortunately, neither market has an effective mechanism

    • by jrumney ( 197329 )
      Obviously the Russians must have copied the US by faking their moon landings, so Google is not counting them.
  • Governments have been landing objects the moon for a few decades now. If the idea is to prove the free market can do things more effeciently wouldn't a bonus more in order?

  • by ls671 ( 1122017 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @05:35AM (#41999775) Homepage

    Then again, what is private group, would In-Q-Tel qualify ? []

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      Sure, if the CIA wants to fund a group going to the Moon with money derived outside of tax dollars (earned by investing based upon information obtained in intelligence operations... with the SEC looking the other way of course with "insider trading" laws) I suppose that is a "private investor".

      That is one very interesting investor group though. It would be up to the X-Prize Foundation to make a final ruling on the matter.

  • I would have thought that as big as US corporates can get, national governments can still throw more resources (people, money) at such a goal - so isn't it a different game? (commercial as opposed to govt. funded). And we know that governments have previously landed on the moon and will continue to do so (I'd expect India to also have further ambitions, perhaps Brazil, etc). So why reduce the money?

  • I wouldn't put it past China to outright cheat.

"If you lived today as if it were your last, you'd buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn't you?" -- Garrison Keillor