Astrobotic qualifies for Milestone Prize from Lunar XPRIZE

Red Whittaker talks about the Lunar XPRIZE and Astrobotic’s vision to take Carnegie Mellon to the moon. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) Red Whittaker talks about the Lunar XPRIZE and Astrobotic’s vision to take Carnegie Mellon to the moon. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/)

From 1955 to 1972, the governments of the Soviet Union and the United States captivated the world and inspired a generation. From the Russians launching Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957, to the United States landing Apollo 11 and the first humans on the moon on July 20, 1969, the limits of human exploration and scientific accomplishment were pushed to bounds never before seen.

Now, NASA has slowly crumbled due to budget cuts and, unfortunately, space exploration has lost its former buzz. The governments of the United States and Russia have stepped down from the podium, setting the stage for the next pioneer of the universe: the private sector.

Companies like Google and SpaceX have incentivized some of the brightest minds in the world to tackle the challenge of space exploration in part by offering prizes for reaching milestones. Google’s Lunar XPRIZE is the latest competition, with almost 20 private companies entered. This prize awards over $30 million in winnings to companies able to achieve specific goals pertaining to lunar exploration. The grand prize is $20 million to the first team that can successfully land a rover on the moon and navigate 500 meters with it.

However, before the final countdown to the moon begins, Google will award $1.75 million in Milestone Prizes to companies that can demonstrate technical goals in landing, mobility, and imaging. Last week, two of the 19 teams entered in the competition were announced to qualify to potentially receive awards in all three categories. One of them is Carnegie Mellon’s spinoff company: Astrobotic Technology Inc.

The Team

Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company run by John Thorton, has a 12-man team, some of whom are Carnegie Mellon students and faculty. Headed by Red Whittaker — Fredkin University research professor of the Robotics Institute and director of the Field Robotics Center — they lead the work on the lunar rover and provide significant contributions to the mission.

Speaking about the vision Astrobotic follows, Thornton said, “A big part of our mission is democratizing space and the moon. It is about creating the moon as the next continent to the world. It is about bringing the moon closer to all of us. We need to learn to live off of this planet. We need to identify where the resources are and harvest them. We need to create an off-Earth economy and start to spread into space.”
Carnegie Mellon’s goals are also as spectacular in nature. “Carnegie Mellon never does anything just for a prize,” Whittaker said. “There is always a higher purpose. It will be to build a future of space robotics. All technological challenges are the same in that way. There was a time when the world didn’t believe a computer could defeat a human chess champion, and so Carnegie Mellon went after that. Space is the next destination and it is a substantial technological challenge. Whether you look at computer chess playing, flying in the early days, driver-less racing, or moon exploration, there is nothing easy about it. You don’t do these things because they are easy.”

Since the beginning of space exploration, there have only ever been two robots that have traversed the lands on the moon; one of them came from China and the other came from the Soviet Union. However, these missions were both carried out with extensive amounts of resources and time. Illustrating the monumental accomplishment Carnegie Mellon students and faculty are chasing, Whittaker said, “The Soviets and China each put more than a decade into [their missions]. If you count the people that touched it, there were hundreds of thousands. Moreover, the money is in the billions. You have to think, by comparison, very highly of this community [at Carnegie Mellon] that doesn’t have that decade and doesn’t have those billions and doesn’t have that army of hundreds of thousands getting it done.”

The majority of the work on the rover is done by Carnegie Mellon students enrolled in the course 16-865, Advanced Mobile Robot Development. While this class only meets officially once a week, the members of the team invest hundreds of hours each month into perfecting the design and building the rover to ensure that everything will go smoothly for when the launch day comes. During the class, Whittaker stressed the necessity of attention to detail when he said, “Imagine if you had only one shot in all of eternity to get your dream done. You can’t leave anything for granted.”

While many people on the team are upperclassman and graduate students with years of experience, there are also many younger members learning on the job. Jake Tesler, a first-year electrical and computer engineering major, joined the course last semester with little to no experience in robotics. However, with work and guidance, Tesler is now making contributions to the avionics that go behind the rover.

The Mission

Whittaker maintained that while $20 million cashed into the bank would be gratifying, the true excitement lies in the exploration of the moon. Whittaker said, “It is authentic exploration. XPRIZE pays you for driving around in the dirt anywhere you want to go. However, that’s not enough for us. We go for the discovery, for the science and for the exploration.”

“There are very real motivations,” he continued. “One of the reasons the moon is our destination is because of the exploration of the pits. These pits are holes which collapsed in. The things that are new on the moon are the water, the ice, and the pits. For decades exploration has looked at rocks, dust, and gravity, but has missed all together the great prize [the pits]. The pit of interest is the size of Heinz Field and as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Many hypotheses for life on extraterrestrial bodies suggest that would likely exist underground. Additionally, one of the collapsed walls has a ramp and so there are some wild scenarios, of course, for what could explain this.”

The current goal for the team commanding the mission is to land the rover on the moon, drive it 500 meters to collect the XPRIZE, and then begin exploration and examination of the pit. This is a scientific discovery that has never been accomplished. The last generation was able to find pride, joy, and inspiration in NASA’s mission to land on the moon. While NASA may no longer be the force that it once was, Astrobotic could be the hero of this generation. Employees, students, and faculty at Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic are working to accomplish a potentially game-changing goal that could inspire generations to come, and prove that not only is there so much left to accomplish, but also that if you reach high enough for huge dreams, you can grab them.