CMU researchers aim for the moon by developing lunar roverprobes - CTTEC - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, March 26, 2010

CMU researchers aim for the moon by developing lunar roverprobes

The easy part may actually be getting to the moon.

Surviving there through a temperature swing of a scorching 120 degrees Celsius at high noon to a beyond frigid low of -185 degrees Celsius at night is another story.

But local researchers going after the Google Lunar X Prize think they have solved some key issues in their quest to win the $20 million purse and the prestige of being the first independent team to send a rover to the moon.

“The temperature extreme is a big drawback to the moon,” said David Gump, president of Astrobotic Technology Inc., which, along with ANSYS. That company also is the first sponsor on the project through its in-kind investment of $2.5 million in simulation software.

“With what they are doing with this project, it really demonstrates what our solution is all about,” said Barry Christenson, ANSYS director of product management. “Companies rely on our software to do things they just can’t test. This is a great example of it; you can’t just fly to the moon and do your test.”

The team expects to have six major sponsors that would each commit $1 million to $2 million and can then claim credit for various parts of the mission.

‘A whole new world’

The Google Lunar X Prize, which was announced in 2007, stipulates that the privately funded craft must land on the moon, travel 500 meters and broadcast a high definition transmission back to Earth. The grand prize, $20 million, goes to the first team to fulfill the mission by Dec. 31, 2012. The prize drops to $15 million until Dec. 31, 2014, when the competition ends. A bonus $5 million is offered if the winning team completes added tasks, such as roving farther than 500 meters or capturing images of artifacts left behind in earlier missions, such as the Apollo 11 landing, or survive the lunar night.

Astrobotic plans to do all of the above, plus one more important goal: bring the entrepreneurial spirit to space exploration.

Going Commercial

In anticipation of the growing space marketplace, the Department of Commerce has established the Office of Space Commercialization, which is designed to help develop space commerce policy and foster economic growth of the commercial space industry.

“You get a lot of innovation and a lot of buy-in from the private sector for a relatively small amount of an award,” said Michael Beavin, senior program analyst for the Office of Space Commercialization, about such prize programs.

In fact, Beavin noted that government agencies such as NASA are opening some of their specialized testing facilities to participants in this prize and others.

Only the First Mission

The Pittsburgh team sees the Google Lunar X Prize as merely the first mission. Others will follow and could include contracting with other space agencies for payload space.

To get the rover to the moon, the team is working with partners that will supply the rocket that will launch it and the propulsion module that will be needed to steer the lander. Most of the lander will be built by the Astrobotic and CMU team, but they are in talks with an outside company on the propulsion module, Gump said. The whole thing will purchase a ride on a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX that will launch sometime in late 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The team recently announced it expanded its payload to 240 pounds, which can be purchased by outside companies. A Houston-based company that provides space burial services has reserved 11 pounds already, Astrobotic says. The remaining space is available for $700,000 a pound plus a $250,000 fee.

The entire project is estimated to cost $60 million, Gump said. So far, through angel investors and research contracts, Astrobotic, the business arm of the enterprise, has raised $3 million, with an additional $48 million needed. CMU owns 5 percent of the company, Gump said.

Thornton, who passed up a lucrative job offer with Boeing to pursue this work with Astrobotic, said the project offers the opportunity for both the people involved and the businesses that invest early.

“I can be a part of this new market and open up a whole new market,” he said. “It really is a whole new world.”


Article Courtesy of Pittsburgh Business Times