Swallowing its pride, NASA says it wants to learn from future commercial missions to the moon Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and it is willing to pay up to $30 million for the privilege.
The space agency wants to take advantage of the flurry of activity sparked by the Google-funded Lunar X Prize, says Michael Braukus, a spokesperson at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
That competition, announced in 2007, offers $20 million for the first non-government entity to land a robotic rover on the moon, provided it occurs before the end of 2012. Twenty-one teams are vying for the prize (see a gallery showing some of the rover prototypes).
NASA believes it can learn from these missions, Braukus says. The agency is prepared to spend a total of $30 million Ã¢â‚¬â€œ up to $10 million per mission Ã¢â‚¬â€œ for data returned to Earth that would be useful for future human or robotic missions of its own, it has announced.
For example, NASA is interested in technology that would allow spacecraft coming in for a landing to recognise hazards like boulders and automatically avoid them. If any of the Google Lunar X Prize vehicles incorporates this technology, NASA will pay for information about how it works and how well it performs.
Although NASA landed both robots and humans on the moon decades ago, it could benefit from designs that incorporate modern computers and other state-of-the-art technologies, says David Gump, president of Astrobotic Technology, a team based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is competing for the prize.
“We went to the moon when TVs had vacuum tubes, cars had fins, and computers had punch cards,” he says. “You have more computing power in your MP3 player than Apollo astronauts did going to the moon.”
Most of the money would be available to teams only after their mission launches. But crucially, NASA says it will pay up to $1.5 million for pre-flight data, for example from ground demonstrations of technology to be used in flight.
“Near-term cash is always lifeblood,” says roboticist Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, chief technology officer for the Astrobotic team.
It’s not clear when Ã¢â‚¬â€œ or even if Ã¢â‚¬â€œ NASA will send astronauts back to the moon. The White House has sought to cancel plans to return there by 2020, in favour of a mission to an asteroid by 2025 instead, but Congress has yet to approve the new plan.
Braukus admits that the return to the moon is still a question mark, but said the data will be “useful to NASA if we decide to land a human on the lunar surface”.