What should be the goals of the next generation of X Prizes? Peter Diamandis is just the man to ask the question. It was Diamandis’ foundation that led to the launch of a private manned spacecraft in 2004, and since then his team has gone on to sponsor an automotive X Prize offering $10 million to anyone who can produce a marketable car that can get 100 miles per gallon. Sixty teams are at work on that one, and prizes focusing on renewable energy are also in the works. The big fish in the pond is the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers $30 million for the first privately funded robotic mission to the Moon.
Nor is Diamandis alone. In fact, the landscape is awash in prizes. The Virgin Earth Challenge, brainchild of British aviation mogul Richard Branson, offers $25 million to anyone who designs a viable way to remove greenhouse gases from the Earth’s atmosphere. For that matter, what about the Saltire Prize, for which Scotland has found £10 million for renewable energy breakthroughs? The US Department of Energy is in on this act as well, with $4 million in the offing for the winner of the Freedom Prize, designed to reduce US dependence on overseas oil.
It’s no surprise, then, to find Diamandis pondering what a truly long-term X Prize might look like. On Friday, he’ll discuss ideas that are seemingly impossible but could change the world in a talk sponsored by the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. If you’re unable to be there, Diamandis has put a video up on YouTube asking for input on the question (you can send in your thoughts here). He wonders what would have happened if, in the 1870s, someone had offered a major cash prize for a heavier than air flying machine, or a way to communicate instantly between London and New York: “People would have thought you were nuts, that these are literally impossibilities, magic.” But we know the outcome.
A future X Prize, Diamandis opines, might be focused on a colonizing mission to Mars. Or it might involve transforming energy into matter (here he recalls Star Trek‘s transporters). Maybe we can take the prize notion to outrageous limits and suggest an interstellar component. Heck, we’ll even offer a head-start. In a recent post on his systemic site, exoplanet hunter Greg Laughlin offered an interesting comment on Alpha Centauri, one worth keeping in mind for would be prize designers:
We’re fortunate that we’ve arrived on the scene as a technological society right at the moment when a stellar system as interesting as Alpha Cen is in the very near vicinity. During the last interglacial period, Alpha Cen did not rank among the brightest stars in the sky. A hundred thousand years from now, the Alpha Cen stars will no longer be among our very nearest stellar neighbors, and in a million years, they will have long since faded from naked-eye visibility. At the moment, though, Alpha Centauri is drawing nearer at 25 km/sec, a clip similar to the Earth’s orbital velocity around the Sun. It’s as if we’re on the free trial period of an interstellar mission…
A free trial period is usually enough to quicken the pulse of consumers. So why not use it to tantalize potential prize donors with the prospect of a truly long-term, outlandishly expensive prize, one designed to spur efforts to put a man-made payload with the capability of returning scientific data into the Centauri system? The data returned could well prove less significant than the breakthroughs achieved to make the journey.
Prizes capture the imagination and can create new ways of thinking because the people involved in them often put far more time, energy and money into the process than the prize itself justifies. You wanted long term, Peter, so how about a Centauri Prize for the first interstellar flyby?