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Italy Aims to Send Spider-Bot Swarm to Moon

Nearly 40 years after Americans first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 with NASA's historic Apollo 11 flight, a host of private rocketeers are hoping to follow to win a $30 million prize. Here, SPACE.com looks at Team Italia, one of 17 teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize:

What began as a glimmer in the mind's eye for one robotics researcher has grown into a national endeavor for Team Italia, one of 17 groups competing for the Google Lunar X Prize.

"Team Italia has evolved," said Piero Messina, president of the Naples-based International Association for the Aerospace Culture (AICA) that is coordinating Team Italia.

Messina helped pull together all the major Italian aerospace and engineering universities, as well as the two largest Italian aerospace companies, to support the race to land a robot on the moon by 2012.

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The idea to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize crystallized around the vision of Alberto Rovetta, a professor of robot mechanics at Politecnico di Milano.

Rovetta's designs for lunar robots resemble skittering spiders or crabs that could deploy as a swarm of mobile cameras and sensors on both legs and wheels.

Such unorthodox designs may help the team seize the Google Lunar X Prize, which requires teams to land a robot on the moon, move at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) and beam high definition views back to Earth.

However, Messina noted that safe, time-tested technology remains crucial to Team Italia's goal of meeting the Google Lunar X Prize objectives.

The group also wants to remain within a target "financial envelope" of $20-30 million, given that the X Prize awards $20 million for first place.

"New technology would add to the cost, but it all depends what will be available to us," Messina told SPACE.com. "Of course, we would love to test new technologies and new robotic things."

Team Italia will also likely focus on lower-cost alternatives to commercial launch vehicles, such as the European Space Agency's Vega rocket that is already slated to launch an experimental reentry spacecraft in 2012.

The team is currently occupied itself with organizing the principal players and looking at preliminary mission design, never mind sizing up the competition for the Google X Prize. "At the moment we are competing against ourselves," Messina noted.

Many of the competitors have made no secret about the challenges of attracting funding, but Team Italia hopes that its national theme can carry the day and attract sponsors even outside the aerospace industry.

Messina compared their private endeavor to those of sailing teams that attract national sponsors for the America's Cup, and stated the goal of bringing "a new philosophy of funding space missions" to Europe and Italy.

"What we are trying to leverage is that most of aerospace community in Italy is behind this project," Messina said. "We really want to give an Italian flavor to the undertaking."

Despite the emphasis on a private Italian undertaking, the team may ultimately partner with the European Space Agency (ESA) and broader international groups. Messina emphasized Italy's active role within ESA and cooperative activities with NASA.

"One of reasons behind this is that Italy is playing a driving role in Europe in exploration matters," Messina added. "This is meant to strengthen the role and reputation of Italian aerospace community as far as exploration is concerned."

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