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Japan, Google head for the moon

Probing X-Prizes

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Everyone is going to the moon. Japan has launched its first lunar probe, Selene, and the X-Prize foundation has persuaded Google to put up a $30m fund to reward any private enterprise that manages to land a probe in lunar-land.

The Japanese space agency, JAXA, watched Selene blast off from Tanegashima, a remote southern island. The rocket carried the craft into Earth-orbit, where it will travel around our planet once before starting its 237,500 mile journey to the moon.

The Japanese craft finally hit the skies some four years after its original launch date. It will drop into lunar orbit before splitting into three parts: a main orbiter and two smaller satellites, which will gather data on lunar topography, geology and environment.

But to win the new X-Prize, a private business will have to go one better and actually land a rover on the moon, and complete a set of objectives.

Firms have until the end of 2012 to claim the top prize of $20m; after that it drops to $15m before the contest closes in 2014. Additional, smaller prizes are available to any private moon mission that hits other goals after landing, such as capturing pictures of the Apollo landing site, or surviving the freezing temperatures of the lunar night.

The X-Prize foundation said rovers should be fitted with high-definition video and still cameras, be capable of transmitting their images back to Earth, and would have to cover at least 500m of lunar surface to win the top prize.

Dr Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation said in a statement: "The Google Lunar X PRIZE seeks to create a global private race to the Moon that excites and involves people around the world, and accelerates space exploration for the benefit of all humanity.

"The use of space has dramatically enhanced quality of life and may ultimately lead to solutions to some of the most pressing environmental problems that we face on earth – energy independence and climate change." ®

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