On December 11th, 1972, the Apollo 17 capsule touched down in the Taurus-Littrow highlands of the moon’s surface.  Eugene Cernan, a Navy pilot and the mission commander, and Harrison Schmitt, the first scientist-astronaut to land on the moon, spent the following three days on its rocky surface conducting geological surveys and seismic experiments.  On December 14th, the two men left the moon’s surface to rejoin Ronald Evans in the command module and begin their long journey home.  No human being has set foot on the moon since.

In the years that followed, a small but vocal contingent of conspiracy theorists would claim that the United States never actually reached the moon.  Pseudoscience presented as evidence claimed the pictures to be forgeries, the samples brought back to be fakes, and the brave men that participated in the Apollo missions to be liars.  In one instance, one of these conspiracy theorists accused Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the moon and a fighter pilot himself, of lying about the missions directly with a camera man to film his response.

And Buzz Aldrin punched him in the face.

Now one German team of scientists intends to silence the rest of the doubters with hard evidence.  The team has partnered with Audi, the German auto manufacturer, to develop a moon lander that will safely deposit their rover, called the Audi Lunar Quattro, within driving distance of the site Apollo 17 astronauts last explored our planetary partner in crime.  The Lunar Quattro will explore the area and send back high definition images and video from the surface, including the lunar rover NASA left behind in 1972.

PT Scientists (short for Part Time Scientists) is one of sixteen teams currently competing for the top prize in Google’s Lunar X-Prize competition.  The rules of the competition are simple: the first team to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, cover a distance of five hundred meters, and transmit high definition video and images back to earth will win the $20 million prize.  The second team to complete these requirements will be awarded $5 million, and an additional $5 million in prizes will go to teams that fulfill bonus requirements, such as visiting the sites of the Apollo moon landings and transmitting proof of the missions back to Earth.

In order to remain eligible for the prize, teams must announce a verified launch contract by the end of this year, and the mission must be completed in its entirety by the end of 2017.

On this day in history: the final Apollo mission lands safely on Earth

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According to NASA preservation guidelines, the PT Scientists team cannot land their rover any closer than 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) from the Apollo 17 site, meaning the team’s little rover will need to cover quite a bit more than the 500 meters prescribed in the competition’s guidelines.  Their existing plan includes landing as far as three miles away from the historic Taurus-Littrow valley, where NASA’s rover remains since it was abandoned at the completion of Cernan and Schmitt’s mission.  It would then traverse the lunar landscape on four specially designed wheels until it is within 656 feet (200 meters) of the Apollo site.  From there, it will send back images and video without getting close enough to damage any of the historically important equipment left behind in 1972.

Aside from the culturally significant impact of proving, once and for all, that the United States accomplished what may be considered the single greatest achievement in the history of mankind, the images sent back from the Lunar Quattro could also help us to better understand the possible damage that can be caused by long term exposure to the intense radiation, extreme temperatures, and spatial vacuum found on the Moon’s surface.  This information can be used in the development of materials designed for long term space missions heading elsewhere in our solar system like Mars.

PT Scientists recently announced their confirmed launch with a Seattle based company called Spaceflight.  Spaceflight is a brokering service that matches companies with payloads that need to reach orbit with organizations that launch rockets.  PT Scientists’ lander and rover will be a secondary payload in a rocket to be launched next year, but no other details have yet been announced.

Image courtesy of PT Scientists