Who knew the basic design of a moon rover could be found at your local pet shop?
Team Frednet, one of 26 contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize, has built a round, translucent robotic vehicle that resembles nothing so much as a hamster ball. If the rolling globe can navigate 500 meters of the moon's surface and send back high-definition video along the way, the team has a shot at the $20 million grand prize.
Of course, to do that the Santa Cruz-based group will need to pull off the first privately-funded mission to the moon. It's no small undertaking - and that's the point. The X Prize Foundation was established to inspire the sort of "radical breakthroughs" that can spawn new industries.
Google, NASA and contest participants all say that commercial expeditions to the moon represent the first necessary step toward unleashing the potential of a "space economy." Once businesses can regularly and economically reach into deep space, it opens virtually endless possibilities for tourism, resource extraction and even space habitation.
"We can't keep resting on what we've done," said Fred Bourgeois of Santa Cruz, founder of Frednet. "We need to build something new."
The contest was announced four years ago and the final deadline is in 2015. If four years seems like a long time, you clearly don't have to raise tens of millions of dollars and build a spacecraft.
Bourgeois does. He's organizing a worldwide team of volunteers (about 700 from 63 countries at last count) that is tackling a bevy of tasks like software development, communications system design and, of course, debugging the hamster ball.
The "Picorover" works on the same principle as the pet shop product, only it's robotic and features a few studs and spikes for traction. The team believes it will be the ideal craft for navigating the moon's irregular terrain without getting stuck.
Among other things, it's hard for a ball to tip over. It's also completely enclosed, offering an ingenious way to keep out the lunar dust that can derail other rovers.
At this point, Frednet has completed most of the designs for the mission. NASA signaled that the plans have at least a decent chance of succeeding by awarding the group a contract to bring back data that could be worth more than $10 million. It was one of only six groups to cinch such a deal.
Now Frednet just needs some money to start building things. Bourgeois estimates the whole undertaking will top $30 million, but fundraising has been difficult during the economic downturn.
The funny thing is, technology is not the real challenge in getting to the moon. Recall that Neil Armstrong reached the lunar surface in 1969 equipped with less computing power than a smart phone.
Instead, the challenge for a privately funded mission to the moon is private funding. It's difficult for the typical Fortune 500 company or venture capitalist to justify such an enormous expense with so little immediate payoff.
Public, private sectors
In that sense, the X Prize serves as a bridge between public and private sectors. It's harnessing the twin powers of incentives and competition to push innovations in the face of market failures and declining government spending on scientific research.
Even the top prize won't cover all the expenses, and only one team gets that. But the awards at least defray costs and spark imaginations.