Intro

<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p>Prizes spurred the invention of the seagoing chronometer for sailing ships, the earliest airplane flights across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first private spaceflight to the edge of space. Now the modern cheerleader for innovation prizes, the X Prize Foundation, has teamed up with energy giant Shell to create a new slew of prizes to revolutionize exploration of everything from Earth's deepest oceans to the surface of Mars.</p> <p>Some ideas still sound like science fiction: beaming down power from space, creating designer organisms for Mars, and cleaning up Earth's space junk. But having partners with deep pockets such as Shell makes it possible to dream big. Simultaneously, new commercialized technologies have empowered individuals or small groups to create swimming robotic drones and send up balloons to take near-space pictures.</p> <p>InnovationNewsDaily talked with X Prize Foundation representatives, spaceflight adventurers and ocean experts to find nine possible prizes that could change how humans explore their own planet and beyond.</p> <p><i>You can follow <a href="%22http:/www.i" mce_href="%22http:/www.i">InnovationNewsDaily</a> Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter <a href="http://twitter.com/%22%20%5Cl%20%22%21/ScienceHsu" mce_href="http://twitter.com/%22%20%5Cl%20%22%21/ScienceHsu">@ScienceHsu</a>. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter <a href="http://twitter.com/%22%20%5Cl%20%22%21/News_Innovation" mce_href="http://twitter.com/%22%20%5Cl%20%22%21/News_Innovation">@News_Innovation</a>, or on <a href="http://www.facebook.com/InnovationNewsDaily" mce_href="http://www.facebook.com/InnovationNewsDaily">Facebook</a>.</i></p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Undersea Robotic Race</b></p> <p>One of the first new exploration X Prizes will challenge teams to create swimming robots capable of circumnavigating the Earth. The unofficially titled "James Cook X Prize" would resemble a race of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), according to Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation.</p> <p>Some underwater drones have already begun deploying around the world for both scientific research and exploration of undersea resources. They swim like winged torpedoes or glide along with the ocean currents for weeks or even months at a time.</p> <p>But the thrill of competition that resembles a mash-up of Jules Verne's stories "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Around the World in 80 Days" could advance both robotic technology and the sensors used by such robots. Getting more robots into the ocean would also boost the quantity and quality of electronic eyes that could help begin mapping the great underwater expanse which remains uncharted.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Mapping the Ocean Floor</b></p> <p>Underwater robotic races may serve as a start, but another X Prize could focus on mapping the ocean floor. Humans have explored barely 6 percent of the Earth's oceans, which leaves more than 90 percent of the undersea world a mystery.</p> <p>The ocean mapping X Prize could easily use lessons learned from the underwater robotic race X Prize, especially if contestants in the former event must carry sensor packages for capturing undersea images and data. Swarms of the undersea robots might be asked to map a certain amount of the ocean floor in a set period of time, said Erika Wagner, senior director of exploration prize development for the X Prize Foundation.</p> <p>As a bonus, mapping efforts by robots could lead to many more discoveries of previously unknown sea creatures inhabiting the ocean's depths.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Rapid-Response Robot Swarm</b></p> <p>If a ship sinks or a passenger jet crashes into the deep ocean, human rescue vessels and undersea robots may not reach the site for days. That's why David Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, wants to see an X Prize effort that pushes development of a robotic swarm that could rapidly deploy from the air to reach any emergency area across the world's oceans.</p> <p>Existing undersea drones can only travel a few miles per hour, and big surface ships may travel just tens of miles per hour on average. A possible solution could involve delivering small, expendable robotic drones by airplane or even rocket. Such rapid response could even help reach unfolding ecological disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Ridding the Ocean of Plastics</b></p> <p>Searching out ocean wonders becomes a killjoy experience when the tenth plastic bag floats by. Both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans now have large areas of open water contaminated by tiny floating bits of plastic. But an X Prize aimed at clearing up the debris left behind by 7 billion humans and counting could preserve the oceans for future explorers.</p> <p>The problem goes far beyond ruining the scenery. Plastic in the oceans keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces that end up being eaten by fish or other marine life, and bigger pieces can trap animals such as sea turtles, seals or dolphins.</p> <p>A focused solution might try to create a plastic replacement for everyday products that may end up as trash dumped in the oceans, said Erika Wagner, senior director of exploration prize development for the X Prize Foundation. That could prove significantly easier than committing to a never-ending cleanup aimed at taming monstrosities such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Cleaning Up Space Debris</b></p> <p>More than half a century of space exploration has left plenty of ruined rockets, dead satellites and messy space mishaps stuck in orbit around the Earth. An exploration X Prize could boost technologies capable of clearing up the growing cloud of space debris that threatens to choke off humanity's access to the stars.</p> <p>Such debris has already endangered both human astronauts and robotic missions alike; past space shuttle missions and the space station have dodged pieces of space junk several times. As a result, space agencies and private companies have begun proposing ideas ranging from orbital cleanup robots to solar sails capable of collecting debris like a dragnet. Similar sails might deploy from satellites at the end of their mission life so that they burn up in the atmosphere and don't add to the problem.</p> <p>An X Prize might do the trick of spurring some wilder concepts as well. NASA and U.S. Air Force scientists have considered deploying ground-based lasers as reverse-tractor beams to push space debris into safer orbits.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Low-Cost Space Launches</b></p> <p>Taking a joyride into space still seems out of reach for the vast majority of humans on Earth, but a growing swarm of private spaceflight companies has begun to drive the cost of space launches down. A well-timed X Prize could help speed up the shift to cheaper spaceflight for all, said Erika Wagner, senior director of exploration prize development for the X Prize Foundation.</p> <p>Dropping the cost of space launches far below the average of $10,000 per pound could do far more than just give more people a shot at becoming space tourists. It could free up the budget of both human and robotic space missions to do more science or aim for more distant extraterrestrial destinations. Cheap spaceflight might also open up science fiction possibilities such as mining asteroids, or allow for construction of bigger space stations and planetary outposts.</p> <p>Wagner cautioned that an X Prize for cheaper space launches would require careful thought; audits of private team expenses might prove tricky. But she added that such a prize would focus on setting the goal and letting teams deploy whatever wild technologies they want to get the job done.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Beamed Power from Space</b></p> <p>The idea of harnessing the power of sunshine in space and beaming it down to Earth has barely edged beyond the visions of science fiction writers, even as seven billion humans strain traditional energy sources. A future X Prize might spur companies and space agencies to actually reach the testing phase and see if the idea of beamed space power has any merit.</p> <p>Plans in the U.S., Japan and Europe call for huge arrays of solar panels to collect direct sunlight unfiltered by the Earth's atmosphere, as well as microwaves or lasers to beam it down to collector stations on the ground. Solaren Corp., a California-based company, has signed a contract to deliver power from space by 2016. Japan's space agency expects a commercial space power station by the 2030s.</p> <p>Yet solving the problems of energy transmission and somehow building expensive solar power stations in space is not enough; the final product must prove competitive with Earth-based sources of energy. An X Prize could cut through the speculation and make space power advocates prove their point.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Designer Organisms for the Red Planet</b></p> <p>Robotic space missions to Mars take extraordinary precautions to ensure that they don't accidentally contaminate the red planet with Earth microbes. But the X Prize Foundation could throw such caution to the Martian winds; it has its eyes on a prize that would reward biologists for creating organisms capable of surviving on such an extraterrestrial surface.</p> <p>The madness makes more sense if you consider that people want to someday send humans to Mars. Creating designer organisms that could survive the harsh radiation and dry conditions on the Martian surface would give scientists a better idea of future cross-contamination risks. The effort might also lead to microbes capable of aiding agriculture on Mars, or perhaps even help transform the planet into a more habitable environment.</p> <p>Such a prize could draw in synthetic biology experts who have begun to make designer organisms with unique genomes not found in nature. That would have the added benefit of engaging scientists who don't typically think about space exploration, said. Erika Wagner, senior director of exploration prize development for the X Prize Foundation.</p> <p></p>

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<p style="text-align: center; " mce_style="text-align: center; "></p> <p><b>Human Habitats on Mars</b></p> <p>The $10 million Ansari X Prize inspired the first private spaceflight. Now a space adventurer who flew as a private citizen to the International Space Station has suggested billion-dollar X Prizes that could create habitats for humans on the red planet.</p> <p>Such prizes could have goals such as robotically landing machines on Mars to collect fuel, build habitats and build greenhouses for growing food, said Richard Garriott, vice chairman of Space Adventures, Ltd and a member of the X Prize Foundation's board of trustees. That would pave the way for the arrival of human colonists in about 30 years preferably people who wouldn't mind a one-way trip to settle the planet rather than just plant a flag.</p> <p>Putting up $1 billion for a prize may sound like much for corporations or governments, but Garriott pointed out that the Ansari X Prize helped spur private investment and growth many times beyond the original prize sum. Besides, the sum pales in comparison to the $100 billion spent on the International Space Station, and the billions more that might be required to otherwise send humans to Mars.<br mce_bogus="1"></p>

9 Ideas for Innovative X Prizes in Exploration