It's been nearly 60 years since man sent the very first spacecraft to the Moon, 50 years since the first spacecraft landed on it, and three years after that, man first walked on it - all that under the auspices of large, national space agencies. Will the first private spacecraft land on the Moon as soon as next year?
Back in the day, people were in a terrible hurry to get to the Moon. When the Iron Curtain was still a part of everyday life, the Moon was actually a war zone between both superpowers, the USA and Soviet Union. The space race between the East and the West finally came to an end on July 21, 1967, when the Apollo 11 crew landed on it.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (less renowned since he didn't walk on the Moon) were the names that were forever written into history, and linked to the Moon for their famous quote about "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." But since then, the interest in the silver ball in the sky died down unexpectedly. Three years ago, the Chinese sent a robotic vehicle called Yutu (which, despite of all odds, was still sending signals at the end of last year) to the Moon, but before that no vehicle had landed on the Moon for nearly 30 years. In the following years, such landings should increase in number, and the USA, Russia and China (followed by India and Japan) will once again prevail. What makes for a far more interesting fact is that the next landing on the Moon may very well come from under the auspices of a private company, and not a national space agency, thanks to the Google Lunar Xprize project.
The Audi Lunar Quattro, a product of the Part-Time Scientists team, boasts a mobile solar cell with an area of 300 square cm, which produces electricity and stores it in a lithium-ion battery. This provides power to four electric motors, one in each wheel. Its maximum speed is 3.6 km/h. The uneven lunar surface means that terrain-battling qualities and effective control are vital. For this reason, each wheel can rotate 360 degrees. Three cameras are mounted on the front of the vehicle: two stereoscopic and one for scientific purposes, intended to study materials--the latter can record hi-res panoramas. Audi Lunar Quattro weighs 35 kg, but the team plans to reduce weight through further use of ever-lighter materials (magnesium) and through technical improvements. The Audi Lunar Quattro should land close to the landing point of Apollo 17, which touched down on 11 December 1972.
The XPRIZE Foundation was found in 1995 by Peter Diamandis, and as a non-profit, it has been supporting and endorsing development and technology ever since. One of the core principles they abide by is the power of rivalry and competition. Competition which stimulates people to attempt new victories, to fully exploit their potential, and to be on the lookout for new solutions, even in the face of obstacles.
The challenges proposed by the Foundation must be demanding, yet achievable. Initially the donations came only from individuals, but later the project attracted more and more corporate sponsors, including Google. The Google Lunar XPRIZE project was set up in 2007, with the objective of developing technologies for inexpensive space travel and igniting a spark of interest in it for the next generation of scientists, engineers and pioneers. In order to win, a privately-funded team must place a lunar vehicle onto the Moon, with which it must traverse a minimum of 500 m across its surface and transmit HD photos and videos back to Earth.
Initially more than 30 teams entered the project, but currently only 16 (some gave up or joined their forces with other teams) are still in the race to win (an award of 20 million USD).
"The concept of a privately-financed mission to the Moon is fascinating, and innovative ideas need supporters to promote them," said Luca de Meo, a former Audi Board Member for Sales and Marketing (and currently CEO of Seat), announcing Audi's support of one of the most intriguing groups of scientists within the Google Lunar XPRIZE project, called the Part-Time Scientists. Established in east Germany, this group of engineers took a lease of premises in the outskirts of Berlin last April. Two hundred square meters' worth of offices and workspace extends to the border of the state of Bradenburg. "For this money, we couldn't have found even 40 square meters in the city center," says Robert Böhme, the founder and the head of the group. "We need a place where we can hammer, be noisy even at three in the morning."
Böhme's adventure began in 2008, thanks to an insurance compensation. Böhme, who was at the time 22 years of age, received 16,000 Euros in compensation from his insurance company for a wrecked car. He saw it as start-up capital to get his vision off the ground, and used 10,000 as a fee to enter the Google XPRIZE competition, a project which launched a new race to the Moon.
Throughout the project, the teams are left to their own devices when it comes to logistics, financing and engineering. They can count neither on the European Space Agency, nor on NASA. Apart from the team coming from the outskirts of Berlin, it seems that the most promising teams come from the USA, Israel, India and Japan. The American Moon Express and Israeli SpaceIL already signed a contract to launch their vessels into space, while other contenders must do so by the end of the year. The Part-Time Scientists don't doubt they'll make it.
"With Audi, we have acquired a strong partner which will bring us a big step forward with its technological and mobility capabilities," says Böhme, an engineer at heart. Long before the Part-Time Scientists group, he built an internet radio station by using open source technology, and led an extensive community of Linux novices. Of course (clichés in stories like this are a must), he's an big fan of Star Trek, which made him think about the universe a lot. "There aren't enough visionaries today. People are stuck far too much in an optimization rut. Today's commercialization is supposed to make everything that exists better. But that way, you don't make anything new. Life can't just be about optimizing things for capitalism." This is not only his opinion, but also his life philosophy. "It's good to have something that is much bigger than you are. That helps you grow," says Böhme. Luca de Meo shares his views, which is why he called on industry (not only the car industry) to help the pioneering spirit in the Böhme's team.
The Part-Time Scientists are not driven by the prize. All team members have been working as volunteers for years, though they've accumulated a dedicated line-up of sponsors, alongside Audi. The core of the team consists of 20 to 35 members, but on occasion up to 70 people will work on a project: space enthusiasts, physicists, mathematicians, engineers. One of them is Jack Crenshaw, an 80-year old retired programmer and a veteran of numerous NASA projects, who used to calculate trajectories for the Apollo missions.
The Audi Group employees who are lending their hand to the project are very versatile. Some specialize in ultra-light constructions, some in the Quattro four-wheel drive system, while others master Audi's e-tron electric drivetrain.
"All the specifications we need are the same as those an Audi needs on Earth, but more extreme: efficiency, light weight, e-tron power and the best engine for all types of terrain," said Jorge Diez, Audi's chief developer of concept cars. "High temperatures, radiation and dust are our greatest enemies." It should be noted that weight is the most crucial element of the mission to the Moon: The difference of a few grams can mean the boundary between success and failure, and it is the weight of the vessel that will determine the costs of its launch into space.
The cost of launching the rocket alone, which will carry the lunar rover to the Moon, comes in at around 24 million Euros. In business terms, the team will have to work hard to cover their costs with the award--if they win, of course, which would be the best possible outcome. At this point, they are left with a good year and a half to complete the project--in 2015, the organizers extended the deadline by which teams must arrive on the Moon, to 31 December 2017. By that time, the Audi Lunar Quattro will have to travel 384,000 kilometers to the Moon and 500 meters across its surface.