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September 18, 2007


I'm not sure there is no moon market to win. Google implies there is a moon media market to win. I have a general concern the money is misplaced relative to aging and medical prizes, and car safety prizes. I think these could all be done up in sexy ways like a mission to the moon (look at the Google prize winner: a car system that swerves to avoid a random pedestrian while keeping the car safe!)

Robin_Hanson: Are you saying there's nothing currently profitable that could be done with a lunar rover? What about placing one's logo on the moon's surface?


I'd tend to bet against anyone winning this, but not at high odds, because it's not clear that "such an effort" is readily evaluated. Your Popular Mechanics site says mainly that "every pound saved on the rover would have an exponential weight-saving effect on the entire vehicle. But the rover can’t be too small; otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to negotiate the dusty, rocky 500 meters required to win the prize." Clearly they're thinking about modest improvements on a Mars rover, and I would agree that this will lead to failure.

Hmm...as of spring 2007, we already have a robotic flea:

Early tests show that the solar-powered bots can store enough energy to make a 7-millimeter robot jump 200 millimeters high.
Of course the fleas will get smaller (more real-flea size) in the next year or three, and solar power is pretty reliable in the lunar day; can such a "flea" carry a camera capable of generating and transmitting (not storing, that doesn't seem to be part of the requirement -- one pixel at a time is okay) the required image data? Before the end of the prize period? I'd bet against it, as I said, but not heavily.

Weirder options are also possible. Consider the nanotube sheet developments of two years back, at PhysOrg:

The nanotube sheets can be made so thin that a square kilometer of solar sail would weigh only 30 kilograms. ... combine high transparency with high electronic conductivity, are highly flexible ...use as electrodes for bright organic light emitting diodes ...and as solar cells .... Electrodes that can be reversibly deformed over 100 percent without losing electrical conductivity are needed for high stroke artificial muscles, and the Science article describes a simple method that makes this possible for the nanotube sheets.
Okay, we need a few kg launched into near-Earth orbit (remember Cosmos 1? Okay, we need better than that, and certainly a better launch system :-), but possibly lighter) most of whose weight will go for the (not very) "soft landing" of a nanotube-sheet slug which crawls along, carrying a one-pixel-at-a-time-camera... Again I'd bet against it, and I'd bet against somebody coming up with some other idea which actually works within the allowed time, but not heavily. And I'd argue that people working out weird ideas may be helped by the focus on a lunar rover, even where success is not likely. So overall, I dunno. I certainly don't think that prizes as such will be discredited; that would worry me a lot if I took it very seriously (I'm one of those who would like to tax "intellectual property", and shift towards prizes instead of grants) but I don't think it's plausible at all, and you can tell that my standards of plausibility are pretty lax. (Oh, well, I'd better get back to writing code, which is partially funded by the NSF.)

Tom, you're forgetting that very small structures like the "robotic flea", the nanotube sheets, and so on will be readily destroyed by radiation beyond low earth orbit. Electronics and nanotechnology up there need to be rad-hardened. The available performance often suffers by orders of magnitude as a result, and expensive custom design is required. On a $10m R&D budget (and even that may be quite optimistic, given the lack of market and that the launch costs already eat up more than the prize money), we are largely limited to off-the-shelf space-proven components already in use on high-orbit satellites, the Mars rovers and landers, the Philae comet lander, and the like.

Nick, you're quite right that I was forgetting radiation. Ouch. It's certainly a problem, and at the shameless-speculation stage any problem might be a show-stopper, but, hey, the increasingly-available off-the-shelf radiation-hardened components include not only generic connection circuitry but FPGAs and, supposedly, miniaturization along the same trends as almost everything else. Moreover, I suspect the mission doesn't require the level of reliability that more conventional space missions (and communications satellites) do; the gadgets have to last a few days, not several years, and fairly-frequent errors in calculating the next flea-jump or electro-muscle contraction should not be a problem, any more than fairly-frequent bad pixels.

I don't believe that nanosheets in themselves should have any special radiation-sensitivity; do you know of something here? My understanding of the space elevator discussions has been that the radiation problem is cargo, especially live cargo.

Some kinds of space technology change very slowly, I've noticed; the Aerojet "Systems and Technology Development Director" of the Redmond lab that makes most US orbital thrusters and such-like little rockets, whether for communications satellites or New Horizons, refuses to take my semi-Singularitarianism seriously...this is annoying, 'cos he's my little brother. I'm sure--well, reasonably sure, though I'm usually wrong--that he would agree with Robin that it ain't gonna happen in the time-frame allowed. And they're probably right...but I don't think that the radiation-sensitivity issue is clear proof thereof.

Tom, notice that that FPGA you linked to is 11 years old. That's several iterations of Moore's Law in the past. I expect it matches my description of at least an order of magnitude poorer performance for its size than the current state of the art where rad-hardening is not needed.

I don't have specifics at hand about nanosheets and radiation, but the general thing to observe is that as components get smaller they get easier to damage with radiation. So if you're relying on atomically thick components, rather than simply deploying nanosheets in bulk for its material properties, there will probably be severe problems caused by radiation. (The R&D budget and risk required to make nanosheets or nanotubes in bulk, test them, design parts based on them, and deploy them on a spacecraft by 2012 are quite prohibitive, and there are many less costly and risky applications for those materials to try sooner, but that's another story). The discrepency between earthside and rad-hardened components will only grow as earthside components approach atomic precision.

I share Robin's concern that the probable failure to achieve the Lunar X-Prize will dampen spirits, but space enthusiasts love to take severe beatings and keep coming back for more. Indeed, projects that came nowhere close to meeting their expectations seem to be the norm rather than the exception in the space business -- look at the Space Shuttle, at Iridium in the 1990s, the current troubles with Elon Musk's rocket, and the imaginary nature of Bigelow's projected markets for example. The Bigelow and Musk ideas never made sense as purely private sector affairs, but they might be saved the complete ignominy of Iridium if NASA bails them out, as they might as they are pursuing NASA's pet objectives. Nor is there much of a lunar market as Robin notes, but again lunar landings have long been a NASA pet objective, so the winner of the Lunar X-Prize might be further rewarded with a fat NASA contract.

A Lunar X-Prize failure will probably just make people realize that the moon is not an economically viable target for commercialization, rather than leading to the overbroad conclusion that space generally is not economically viable. And the realization that the goals NASA has hyped for so long are generally very bad ideas for commerce would be a very good thing. It is a severe mistake to believe that the NASA projects of landing on the moon, trying to radically reduce launch costs with conventional rockets, space stations, etc. have anything to do with an economically viable approach to space development. The problem is not so much that NASA has pursued good goals badly; the main problem is that it has pursued commercially terrible goals. Sadly the moon, the focus of so much of our efforts and yearnings and speculations, is as far as we know one of the most useless places in the solar system. Suborbital tourism, on the other hand, the market partner to the first X-Prize, is a new private market that plausibly stands up on its own, just as comsats have long stood up on their own.

Nick, the article I linked to does indeed talk about an 11-year-old chip that is still in use, but it also describes work in progress including

a reprogrammable, radiation-hardened FPGA, which Scott said will have 3 million gates, versus 10,000 in current chips. It will be much faster and require much lower power levels
. 300-fold is more than 8 doublings, in 11 years...that's faster than Moore's Law development, so I would guess it's an issue of radiation-hardening doing some catch-up with conventional circuitry. In any case, it sounds as if flexible general-purpose rad-hardened circuitry should be available. And the nanosheet plan I'm suggesting would be using nanosheets for their bulk propertis, as you say, so I suspect that one's okay too...So I'm still thinking that the prize in question will probably go unclaimed, but I'm not at all confident of this. And it could be that there will be enough progress to make it a "success" even if the actual prize is unclaimed.

And I don't even agree that the moon is useless. At least, once we get to sending self-reproducing machinery there. :-)

Donna Hoffman of the eLab eXchange talks back to Robin Hanson.

See my added comment above.

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