MIT faculty and students have joined the race to send the first privately funded spacecraft to the moon.
At a press conference on Dec. 17 at NASA's Ames Research Center, organizers of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition revealed the members of a "mystery team" that is one of a dozen contestants for the $30 million prize and that, it turns out, includes significant MIT participation.
The competition, announced in the fall of 2007, set several ambitious goals: To win, a privately funded team must send a spacecraft to the moon, land safely, and then move at least 500 meters across the surface; while there, it must send high-resolution images and video back to Earth. Fourteen teams have registered for the competition, including the mystery team whose participants remained a closely held secret until the Wednesday announcement. Two teams have already dropped out of the contest.
The mystery team, which has been assembled over the last year, is now revealed as "Next Giant Leap," which includes members from MIT, aerospace companies, and small businesses. Besides MIT, the team includes MicroSat Systems, a satellite manufacturing company that will be the lead integrator of the craft; MIT-spinoff Draper Laboratory, which will handle the challenges of guidance and navigation, as it did for the Apollo program; Aurora Flight Sciences, a Cambridge company that designs small unpiloted vehicles; and Busek, a company that specializes in propulsion systems.
MIT will be represented on the team by Jeffrey Hoffman, Professor of the Practice of Aerospace Engineering and a former astronaut who flew five missions of the space shuttle, and David Miller, head of the MIT Space Systems Laboratory and developer of the SPHERES micro-satellite research project that has flown multiple test missions on the International Space Station. Students will also be included as part of the MIT involvement in the project.
"When approached to join the Next Giant Leap team, we thought it was an outstanding opportunity for our students to be exposed to several agile, cutting-edge companies in the space business while working on a very challenging project," says Hoffman. "We feel that this team has the right stuff to have a shot at capturing this very challenging prize."
The X-Prize Foundation, creator of the award, was the brainchild of Peter Diamandis '83, SM '88, HST '89, who says of the new team "we feel they are a very strong team, with experienced participants, a strong academic partner, and several cutting-edge small space companies."
Details on the Google Lunar X-Prize and all the competing teams can be found at www.googlelunarxprize.org.