A private race to the moon with robotic probes may kick off a lunar "water rush" that helps humanity explore asteroids, Mars and other deep-space destinations, some scientists say.
The 25 privately funded teams competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize may perform vital prospecting work that will lay the foundation for large-scale exploitation of moon water, leading to cheaper and more efficient space exploration, the idea goes.
"This is like the gold rush that led to the settlement of California," Phil Metzger, a physicist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in a statement. "This is the water rush."
The lure of lunar water
The Google Lunar X Prize is an international challenge to land a robot on the moon's surface, have it travel at least 1,650 feet (500 meters) and send data and images back to Earth. [Meet the Google Lunar X Prize Teams (Gallery)]
The first privately funded team to do all of this will receive the $20 million grand prize. An additional $10 million is set aside for second place and various special accomplishments, such as detecting water, bringing the prize's total purse to $30 million.
NASA and other space agencies are particularly interested in the water-detection part of the challenge. They hope the teams — such as one led by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, Inc. — help ground-truth observations made from orbit, which have spotted water ice in craters near the lunar poles.
"We really need to get vehicles on the surface of the moon prospecting to characterize those deposits, like how do they vary spatially, how do they vary with depth?" Metzger said.
Moon water could be used for much more than just slaking astronauts' thirst. Split into its component hydrogen and oxygen, it could also provide air for them to breathe and — perhaps most importantly — propellant for their spaceships, which could refuel at orbiting "gas stations."
"There have been studies that have shown you can reduce the mass of a mission to Mars by a factor of somewhere between three and five if you get propellants from the space environment rather than launching them all from Earth," Metzger said.
In April, Astrobotic signed a contract with NASA to continue to develop technologies the space agency may use to harvest space resources in the future. And the company's X Prize plans are coming along; Astrobotic aims to launch a lander and rover to the moon on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket less than three years from now.
"Our intent is to land on the surface of the moon in October 2015 and find water," said Astrobotic president John Thornton.
Astrobotic will test its rover and tools in a special bin of simulated lunar soil at Kennedy Space Center.
"You have to be able to go to the moon with some confidence that your vehicle's going to be able to get around and to dig in the soil," Thornton said.
The fact that so many other teams are vying to beat Astrobotic to the moon shows that the potential to find and exploit lunar resources is real, he added.
"If we were doing something really big and no one else was trying to do it, then it might not be that big," Thornton said.