Telescope To Go Where No Telescope Has Gone Before

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Hoping to do for a post-Apollo generation what the moon landings did for mine, Moon Express, a contender for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, plans to put a small remotely operated telescope on the surface of the moon.

“We don’t expect to be changing the annals of astronomy with this instrument. We intend to be changing people’s minds,” Moon Express founder and chief executive Bob Richards told Discovery News.

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The point of the Google Lunar X Prize, like the predecessor Ansari X Prize, is to spark competition and develop private sector space businesses. The $10 million Ansari X Prize, which was won in 2004, focused on suborbital space travel. It led to construction of a commercial version of the winning SpaceShipOne prototype.

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The two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, is due to make its first test flight beyond the atmosphere in 2012. Nearly 500 people already have made reservations for the $200,000 ride.

Like its name implies, the Google Lunar X Prize aims for commercial development on the moon.

“The Google Lunar X Prize is an important part, but we established Moon Express to provide entrepreneurship on the moon,” Richards said. “The X Prizes consider themselves successful only if they lead to whole new industries.”

In addition to meeting the criteria to clinch the prize, Moon Express plans to fly other cargo on its first trip to the moon, including a small telescope owned by the International Lunar Observatory Association that will be controlled by scientists and the general public on Earth.

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“When you’ve reached a new shore, reached the top of a new mountain, the first thing you do is look around. This is a way for people to look out and see Earth from the surface of the moon,” Richards said.

The telescope, which is about the size of a shoe box, also will be used to look out at the Milky Way galaxy from the perspective of the moon.

“People barely look up these days, at the stars that surround us. They are more focused on square screens rather than the magnificence of the cosmos in which we live. We want to reach out in an emotional way to humanity about the importance of the moon,” Richards said.

A test run of the telescope, currently is located at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, is planned for tonight (Dec. 19). “It’s sort of stress-testing not just our software, but the strategy for multiple users,” Richards said.

Scientists from Hawaii, China, India, Canada, Japan and Europe are scheduled to participate in the 90-minute linkup.

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Moon Express plans to launch in 2014.

Image: The Apollo 8 crew snapped this iconic image of the planet in December 1968 during the first human mission to leave Earth orbit. The picture helped change our perspective and spark a global environmental movement. Can another shift in consciousness come from privately funded exploration? Credit: NASA