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This article was published 19/2/2011 (2587 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MONTREAL - A group of Canadian space buffs wants to make a hockey puck boldly go where no hockey puck has gone before: the surface of the moon.
The Vancouver group is one of 29 teams from 17 countries competing in the latest race to the moon: the Google Lunar X Prize, an effort funded by the web giant to encourage commercial space development.
Teams on four continents are trying to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface before the end of 2015 in order to win a chunk of the $30 million in prize money.
The goal of competitors is to send a robot to the moon which travels at least 500 metres and transmits video, images and data back to Earth.
Some teams are backed by global heavyweights like aerospace firms; others, like the Vancouver team nicknamed "Plan B," are upstart outfits working to scrape together enough funds to compete.
Alex Dobrianski, Plan B's team leader, says it will take him 18 months to complete full development of his lunar craft.
He says it should be ready to go in early 2013 and he is hoping to launch two missions that year. Lessons learned from the first trip will be used to work out mistakes in design, errors in calculation and bugs in software.
He admits the exercise is somewhat of a long shot.
"Maybe there's a one in 100 chance that it will succeed," Dobrianski said.
Dobrianski, who runs Adobri Solutions Ltd., a computer software consulting firm, has assembled a team that includes his two sons, Sergei and Andrei, who work in high-tech industry, and Alex Ivanov, a 52-year-old friend and engineer.
They need to raise the minimum $1 million required for each launch; Dobrianski says he has $100,000 saved up so far. Once the financing is in order, the team can move on to other questions — like whether it will use a commercial rocket-launch company or put its payload on an American or Russian rocket.
Then there's the hockey pucks.
Having lived in Canada since emigrating from Ukraine in 1995, Dobrianski is well aware of the symbolism of including that piece of vulcanized rubber in his project.
"I'm almost 15 years in Vancouver and I'm just curious who will be faster: I will send a puck to the moon or the Vancouver Canucks will win the Stanley Cup," he quipped.
The pucks are about much more than symbolism, however; they also carry a utilitarian function.
Dobrianski says three pucks would be mounted on the vehicle's motors and would help provide stability, to keep it from tipping over.
"When you need to orient a probe, the normal way is to use a special weight," Dobrianski said.
"When I looked at what weight would be suitable I just picked up my son's hockey puck and took it in my hands and found that, 'Yeah, found it's heavy and it will be absolutely perfect for this job.'"
The hockey-puck-laden vehicle would be competing against a number of U.S. teams — along with many European squads from Spain to Romania, along with China, Russia, Israel, Chile and Brazil.
The teams consist of space entrepreneurs, university researchers, scientists and computer engineers.
The first team to land will claim the $20 million grand prize, while the second team will earn $5 million. There are also $4 million in bonus prizes for accomplishing other tasks, like finding water on the moon.
Canadian-born Bob Richards set up two teams: the first one was Odyssey Moon, based on the Isle of Man, as well as Moon Express of Silicon Valley.
The space entrepreneur, who's team leader of Moon Express, says he was also close to starting up a Canadian competitor, but had to go south because of greater "availability of capital."
Ramin Khadem, a Canadian now living in England, is chairman of Odyssey Moon, which was first announced in December 2007.
"As the first official contender in the Google Lunar X Prize, we share its goals — the long-term responsible development of the moon for the benefit of humanity," he said in a statement.
Canada's MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, (MDA), which provided the Canadarms on the U.S. space shuttles and the International Space Station, is Odyssey Moon's prime contractor.
The way Richards sees it, there are only three serious competitors: his own Moon Express; the Rocket City Space Pioneers team of Huntsville, Ala.,; and Team Astrobotic, out of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.
"When you look at those three contenders, that's the spectrum of high credibility for potential winners of the Google Lunar X prize," he told The Canadian Press.
Richards also notes that the trio already have deals with NASA to provide data collected during their lunar missions.
He says the real challenge is to build the lander which will carry a team's robot to the moon surface.
"You can buy rockets (and) people put satellites up in orbit all the time. There's no magic in that," he said.
"What you cannot buy is the thing that gets you down to the surface — the actual lander — and that's the piece of the puzzle the Google Lunar X prize was staged to solve."
The last time a man-made spacecraft set down on the moon and actually returned to Earth was in August 1976, when Russia's Luna 24 came back with samples.
NASA's website says about a dozen probes have orbited the moon since then and a couple were even deliberately slammed into the surface.
Richards, a co-founder of the International Space University, says the Google Lunar X prize is a sign of things to come.
"The first trillionaires are going to be made in space," he said.
The moon has been a quiet place lately.
The last human visitors arrived on Dec. 11, 1972, when the Apollo 17 module landed with American astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt.
But Richards predicts things will get busier over the next few decades. He says that until 2020, the focus will be on exploration and mapping, followed by the second wave of human beings and thrill-seekers.
Richards foresees lunar visits by "private humans, not just government humans, spending their own money to reach the moon."
He then envisions colonies and outposts being established during the 2020s, with earthlings going to the moon to extract resources or simply for recreation and entertainment.
Then, in the 2030s: "You will see the full economic entanglement."
"When kids look up into space and see the moon, they will see the lights of cities."