This year we will return to the moon. I’m not talking about a new NASA mission or something coming out of Russia’s Roscosmos or the European Space Agency. I’m talking about private enterprise. I’m talking about a competition first launched 10 years ago, and we are in the final stretch. I’m talking about the Google Lunar X Prize.
First, the rules. You must launch a rocket toward the moon and travel the 380,000 kilometer distance. One false calculation and you could miss the moon entirely. Once you arrive close to the moon, you must slow down, which is harder than it sounds. Don’t do that right, and you could end up with what is called a “hard landing”, otherwise known as a crash. Then you have to find a place to land, probably someplace that’s smooth and flat. If you land successfully, you must then somehow move your craft 500 meters. This is can be done by rover, another rocket, or some other design. Finally you have to send pictures and a message back to Earth from the lunar surface. Do that, and you win the Google Lunar X Prize and the $20 million dollar prize money! But, there is one final catch. A minimum of 90% of your budget must come from private donors; no governments allowed. The idea there is to keep costs down and be as innovative as possible.
When the contest first began, there were over 30 competitive teams. Overtime the field has dwindled as various checkpoints past. Now only 5 teams remain. Each team has a different story and come from all over the world. From the U.S. there is Moon Express. Japan has Team Hakuto. From Israel there is Team SpaceIL and from India, Team Indus. Rounding out the field is an international group with members from over 15 nations called Synergy Moon. Each team has secured a separate launch date and launch vehicle/rocket, except for Team Indus and Team Hakuto. They will share the same rocket ride aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket. A true space race!
A few weeks ago we lost the life of American astronaut Eugene Cernan. Gene was the last man to walk on the moon, over 40 years ago. That’s a long time, so long that to many people the Apollo missions seem to be a mere story, something strange from a bygone era. Others think it never even happened. I was born a few months after the Apollo 17 mission, so I just missed the best part of the space race of the 1960’s. Fortunately, there is a new race, and a new generation to get the ball rolling again. I can’t wait to get back to the moon!
Astronomy Word of the Day: Cyanogen. Cyanogen is a chemical compound (CN)2 very commonly found in comets. Toxic to humans, it is one of the reasons comets tend to appear green as they approach the sun. Cyanogen was first noticed in comets around 1910 when scientists analyzed the composition of Halley’s Comet. That particular apparition of Halley’s Comet was very close, with the Earth passing through its tail. Many feared that the poisons in the tail would kill us, but the tail of a comet is so diffuse that there was nothing to fear.