Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Oakland firm refines rover designed to land on lunar soil, win $20M
Executives of Astrobotic Technology in Oakland believe they are a bit closer to winning a $20 million race to the moon.
Company Chairman William "Red" L. Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor, and his colleagues on Monday showed off their third prototype of a robot they plan to send to the moon in May 2011.
The winner of the Google Lunar X PRIZE awarded by a California nonprofit that encourages innovation will be the first robot to land on the moon, travel 500 meters on the lunar surface and send images and data back to Earth.
Forty years ago yesterday, Apollo 11 astronauts became the first humans to land on the moon.
What's special about this prototype, said Astrobotic spokesman David Gump, is that it should be able to withstand the intense heat a lunar day exerts.
"Before we weren't solving the problem of the robot cooking itself at noon," Gump said. That's a particularly significant problem because the Astrobotic team plans to drop the Red Rover robot at Apollo 11's landing site, which is at the moon's equator. Temperatures there rise above 270 degrees Fahrenheit.
"There's a lot of heat coming from the sun and a lot of heat bouncing off the lunar soil," Gump said.
The Red Rover will diffuse heat in two ways. First, it will keep a cool side aimed away from the sun to radiate heat off to the black sky, Gump said. Secondly, by using composite structures made from carbon fiber tape and resin, the robot will be able to transmit heat from its hot to cold side more efficiently.
Nineteen teams with members from 35 countries are developing robots, said Will Pomerantz, senior director for space prizes for the X PRIZE Foundation in Playa Vista, Calif. Teams must be at least 90 percent privately funded. To collect the full $20 million, the goal must be achieved by Dec. 31, 2012.
"The contest is coming extremely well," Pomerantz said. "It's been a little under two years since we announced it and we're a lot farther than we thought we'd be. It was designed to be a six- or seven-year journey. The teams are more diverse, better and bringing more talent to the table."
Whittaker credits the nature of the contest.
He likens it to the $25,000 Raymond Orteig offered for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris, which Charles Lindbergh won in 1927.
"Flying was a nascent technology," Whittaker said. "It couldn't attract a passenger service or investment by Wall Street. All that changed instantly in that moment of actualization. Flying became a darling experience. Everyone wanted to fly or take a flight. It gave rise to the vision of intercontinental flight and improved the quality of airplanes."
That's what's about to happen once the Lunar X PRIZE teams figure out how to reach the moon without the help of NASA, said Bob Richards, CEO of Odyssey Moon, an Isle of Man company working to commercialize lunar travel.
"We're going to make the moon relevant," Richards said. "We view the moon as an eighth continent that's largely been unexplored. Its proximity to Earth means it's close enough to have an economy. The Earth and moon will be like two islands in an archipelago."