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Dizzy moon lander misses public debut

(Image: NASA)

It was billed as the beginning of a "new era" of private companies racing to reach the moon, timed seamlessly to coincide with the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program and toasted with champagne, violinists, moon-shaped biscuits and even a song. But what was supposed to be the first public flight test of a commercially developed robotic lunar lander  - an entrant to the Google Lunar X Prize  - ended last night with a good dose of sod's law and more fizz than bang.

The flight test of the $40 million lander  - developed by the one-year-old Silicon Valley based start-up, Moon Express, and scheduled for demonstration in front of a crowd of luminaries, investors, and journalists - was called off at the last minute after engineers couldn't fix a problem with a new gyroscope. It meant the lander was convinced it was spinning in the opposite direction to the one it was actually turning. The expectant audience had to make do instead with video footage of the lander being privately tested last month.

The hiccup is a little disappointing admits Barney Pell, the former NASA research and development manager who co-founded the company and is its chief technology officer. But it is also not wholly unexpected given just how fickle high-tech projects can be, he says. The lander is supposed to be more precise, better able to avoid hazards when it lands and have more thrust for its lighter weight than any previous landers.

"It would have been nice to share with everyone," says Pell, "But the reality of engineering is that things take a while and whenever you are about to demo something it will break just at that moment."

The demonstration comes as the Google Lunar X Prize  - a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon - heats up. The 29 teams currently in the race have until 2015 before the money disappears.

Many are trying to create entries that will have a use and market beyond the contest and Moon Express doubtless has one of the most ambitious long term aims: to mine the moon for rare metals. There is more platinum on the moon than all of planet earth, notes Pell, adding he believes moon mining could be economical, in some cases now, and it has the added bonus of being environmentally benign because "nothing lives there".

Engineers plan to fix and re-test the lander today. We will make it to the moon, insists Pell.