Isle of Man is first in Moon race

It’s one small step for the Isle of Man – but a giant leap for a British-based bid to win the first private race to the Moon.

Odyssey Moon, based on the island 60 miles off England’s north-west coast, has become the first team to register for the £15 million ($20 million) Google Lunar X Prize announced by the internet giant in September.

To win, they will have to land an unmanned probe on the Moon’s surface and then send a robotic rover at least 500 metres and transmit a Mooncast of photos, videos and emails back to Earth.

Google’s awards, in conjunction with the X Prize Foundation, are just the first part of a treasure trove which Odyssey Moon says can be recovered by a successful private program of lunar exploration.

Company chief Robert Richards believes the real prize is that the Moon holds a fortune in energy and minerals just waiting to be extracted by go-ahead entrepreneurs.

He predicts they could set off a lunar goldrush of low-cost missions to Earth’s natural satellite, which he describes as “an eighth continent rich in energy and resources floating just offshore.”

Registering for the Moon race at a space summit in California, Dr Richards said: “We have a long term vision and now with the Google Lunar X Prize we have a short term goal. Odyssey Moon is setting its eyes on the prize.

“Future generations will view the Google Lunar X Prize as the turning point of the 21st century, when humanity realised the Moon’s critical role for prosperity and survival in space and on Earth.”

The Isle of Man, which is independent of the UK, may seem an unlikely base for a major space mission – and its rockets will certainly not be launched from there. But since 2004, the island has wooed companies eager to explore the final frontier by offering big incentives including zero corporate income tax. Leading space companies Sea Launch, Inmarsat and Loral Skynet have already set up subsidiaries there.

The Isle of Man’s Odyssey Moon program will be international in scope. Prime contractor will be MDA Space Missions of Canada, who built the robotic arms used by Nasa’s shuttles and the International Space Station.

And the bid is being supported by the world’s largest space interest group, the Planetary Society, which was co-founded by Carl Sagan.

Its Executive Director Dr Louis Friedman said: “The Moon is a stepping stone into the solar system, for governments and for the private sector. Odyssey Moon’s leap forward to this stepping stone could presage a new day of commercial ventures beyond Earth.”

Apart from the £15 million first prize, there is a £2.5 million ($5 million) prize for second place, plus £2.5 million in bonuses for achievements such as photographing old spacecraft on the Moon, discovering lunar ice and surviving the 14-day long lunar night.

The missions must be concluded by December 31, 2012 to win the big prizes, or by 2014 to win smaller awards. Google have been busy improving their own online maps of the Moon.

The photo is from the launch of the Google Lunar X Prize in September.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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