As regular SeekerBlog readers know, science prizes work, producing big gains by leveraging private capital (instead of the typical “free money” taken from taxpayers and given to institutions by bureaucrats). An outstanding example is the DARPA Challenge and Urban Challenge prizes which produced real world vehicle robots. One of the standouts was the Carnegie Mellon team led by Red Whittaker. There is an excellent article at Air & Space Magazine, January 01, 2009 on the Carnegie Mellon roboticist’s spinoff company Astrobotic Technology.
The scraping of metal wheels on loose rocks and the clicking sounds of mechanical actuators alert me to the lunar rover’s presence before I see it. Turning, I come face to face with the robot as it emerges from a shallow ditch, its two mast-mounted camera “eyes” gazing at the ground, then tilting up to scout a way forward.
Less than five feet tall and three feet across, it’s an unassuming ’bot: a truncated pyramid plastered with solar panels, moving on four wheels tucked underneath. As it passes me, the rover steers off to the right and trundles slowly on a 500-yard trek toward its goal: a crude mockup of the Apollo 11 lunar lander base, spray-painted gold—an incongruous sight here on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh.
In May 2010, a descendant of this rover is scheduled to visit the actual Apollo 11 landing site on the moon in an attempt to claim the $25 million Google Lunar X Prize for its creators, Astrobotic Technology. A spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center, Astrobotic is led by the center’s founder, William Whittaker, known to all as Red.
…On the business side, Whittaker got back in touch with David Gump, a space entrepreneur with whom he had worked in the 1990s on a commercial proposal, LunaCorp, to launch a rover to the Apollo 11 site. Within weeks of reviewing the Google prize requirements, he and Gump realized that making another try at the moon would require a new company, and capital. So Astrobotic was formed, with Gump as president.
For a team to claim the Google prize, its robot has to land on the lunar surface, travel at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile), and send high-definition images and data back to Earth within 24 hours. The first team to do so will win $20 million; bonus awards totaling $5 million are offered for extras such as photographing an artifact of previous lunar exploration, travelling more than 5,000 meters, and operating for a second (two-week) lunar day. To win the full award, the mission must be completed by the end of 2012, and 90 percent of the funding has to come from private sources. So far, 14 teams have announced their intention to compete for the prize.
Originally, Whittaker and crew targeted a landing at one of the moon’s poles; the reserves of water ice believed to exist there would be useful to future lunar explorers. But ultimately “cultural interest” drove the decision: Astrobotic now intends to touch down near the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquillity and head off on a “Tranquillity Trek”—visiting the site of the first moonwalks, an area about the size of a soccer field, and sending back photos and video in near-real time.
In order for the rover to photograph itself on the moon (another Google requirement), the camera team is positioning a large parabolic mirror on the robot’s side, much like a bus mirror. This should also yield a “money shot” showing sponsor logos, the rover, and (perhaps) Earth. (There’s also talk of having the rover’s bulldozer-like treads imprint a sponsor’s logo or other design in the lunar dust.)
…At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which has built all of NASA’s planetary rovers, Rob Manning has been watching the Google Lunar X Prize contenders with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. As the chief engineer for JPL’s Mars program, Manning has a keen sense of what it takes to land and rove around on another planet. “Building robots that fly off Earth, land on another body, then interactively explore in a highly hostile environment requires a dazzling array of skills and technologies,” he points out in an e-mail. “I hope that [Astrobotic] fully appreciates this reality. I live it every day.”
Manning holds the individual members of Whittaker’s team in high regard. “The good news is that they’ve got incredible talent,” he says. But, he adds, “this is outside the box. It’s not a car, it’s not the DARPA challenge, not a missile. It’s an all new thing—taking the best ideas from very different places and putting them together in a very weird, highly coupled way that’s got to work the first time.”
If Astrobotic can figure out how to test its systems in an integrated way on Earth, Manning thinks the missile-like landing concept can work, even with the ridiculously low (by JPL standards) $100 million budget. “I think they have a shot at it,” he says. When I tell him that Astrobotic hopes to raise enough money for two shots, doubling its chances of success, he is happy to hear it: “That’s wonderful…. I want them to win.”
Whittaker and his financial team are not counting on angels to bankroll them out of kindness. Their business plan is based on the proposition that, before NASA sets up a base on the moon, robots will be making maps and collecting data. If the Astrobotic rover makes it by 2012, or even 2014, when the Google prize expires, it will arrive years ahead of the astronauts.