SciTech

X PRIZE Challenge: Professor accepts challenge to put a robot on the moon

The broadcast of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon has come to symbolize U.S. space exploration. But with the aid of Carnegie Mellon’s cutting-edge technology, the next explorer to land on the moon might be a robot.

The Google-sponsored X PRIZE Foundation is holding a $20 million challenge to land a functioning robot on the moon within the next five years, and Carnegie Mellon is stepping up to the plate.

Robotics professor William “Red” Whittaker is heading up the university’s moon prize team, which is set to include students, staff, volunteers, investors, research institutions, companies, and other talent outside of Carnegie Mellon.

Whittaker, who is also the director of the Field Robotics Center, said that the team will need to design a robot that is large enough to handle the lunar terrain but light enough to launch from Earth and land on the moon.

“Any additional kilogram adds a lot to the weight that you have to launch,” said John Thornton, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who is working with Whittaker on the project.

Thornton said that one of the first steps in the project is deciding on the robot’s mass. “It definitely turns into a very large optimization problem on the mass side of things.”

To win the competition, the robot must traverse the moon’s surface for 500 meters and send a “mooncast,” or data package, back to Earth. The mooncast must include high-resolution photographs and high-definition video.
The winning team will receive $20 million, and the second-place team will take home $5 million.

During preparation, Whittaker’s team will focus on how to launch the rover from Earth to the moon and how to communicate digital information back to Earth.

The team will also prepare the robot for harsh environmental conditions on the moon.

According to Thornton, the robot will be operational on the moon for about 10 days.

At night, lunar temperatures can fall below -325°F; during the day, they can top 212°F.

“That temperature difference is brutal on any mechanical system,” Thornton said.

The robots will also be subject to lunar dust and high levels of radiation while on the moon, inhibiting their functionality and possibly damaging the robot’s camera sensors.

Whittaker, who is unfazed by such challenges, said, “For the dust, there are seals and brushes that … keep the dust out of bearings and moving parts.” As for the electronics, “There are electronics that can endure radiation.”

In order for the robot to be able to withstand the moon’s chilling nighttime temperatures, the team might design it to travel westward on the lunar surface. This kind of movement is called “sun synchrony,” and it would require the robot to set its own path without help from Earth during certain parts of the trip.

“That way, you’re always in the light, and instead of having to design for hot and cold, you can bask in the sunlight and get a lot of solar energy,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker said that the team’s robot will probably run on solar power.

As a general principle, Whittaker said, the team will not build parts of the robot that can be readily purchased.
“There might be 60 percent of a system like this that can be acquired,” he said. “It’s the important 40 percent where you have to design and build the parts, create the electronics, and get the power systems.”

Whittaker said that the team will need to develop software to control the rover’s sensor systems, which include lasers, cameras, and radars.

“It’s definitely not anything that CMU can’t handle,” Thornton said.

The software must also ensure that the robot lands on the moon safely. Because there is no atmosphere surrounding the moon, the rover cannot use a parachute to land.

Instead, the robot will use small rockets that are controlled by the system’s software.

Once it is safely on the surface, software will enable the robot to send high-quality images back to Earth, perhaps through a continuous cycle of stopping, pointing its antenna, and transmitting data.

“The software has to be very special to do that right,” Whittaker said. It is the “real crux of landing, driving, and dealing with the unknown and sending back the data.”

According to the Carnegie Mellon Moon Prize website, there are a number of different sponsorship possibilities for the moon rover. One is to have a reality television program in which people compete to become the first amateur driver of the rover. The team is also considering the possibility of making the robot into a web host, capable of sending images in e-mails to online users.

Speaking of the challenge, Thornton said, “It’s a chance of a lifetime.”

According to Google’s Lunar X PRIZE website, the space mission also opens up the possibility of using natural resources from the moon on Earth.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE website stated that the moon is “a source of solutions to some of the most pressing environmental problems that we face on the Earth.”

In particular, if the X PRIZE challenge is successful, robots may be able to pinpoint the location of crater ice on the moon. Crater ice can be used as fuel for spaceships, thereby decreasing the cost of space missions.

The moon also contains helium-3, which can be used as a low-radiation fuel in nuclear fusion reactions. In the future, robots may be able to transport helium-3 to Earth.

Lunar substance from the moon can also be used to construct solar devices that can be sent into space. These devices would be capable of sending solar energy from space to Earth during night. This energy could be used to charge electric cars and produce synthetic fuel on Earth.