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Sept. 13: Carnegie Mellon Researchers Will Pursue Google Lunar X Prize


Byron Spice

Anne Watzman

Carnegie Mellon Researchers Will Pursue Google Lunar X Prize

Team Seeks $20 Million Prize for Landing Robot on Moon

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University roboticist William "Red" Whittaker is assembling a team to land and operate a robot on the moon by 2012 with the intent of winning a $20 million challenge announced today by the  X Prize Foundation and Google Inc.

MoonThe Google Lunar X Prize,, is the richest international competition in history, with a total prize purse of $30 million. To win the grand prize of $20 million, a team must drive a robot for at least 500 meters on the lunar surface and transmit images to Earth. This will be the first private off-planet exploration. 

"Planetary exploration is a dream we pursue and a technology we create," said Whittaker, the Fredkin Research Professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "We have spent decades building and testing robotic technologies for just this purpose. We are also veterans of competitive technology challenges. These are the things we do, so combining lunar rovers with a competitive race to the moon is a great opportunity."

In addition to the grand prize, another $5 million has been allotted for bonus achievements, such as imaging Apollo or other manmade artifacts, driving for more than 5 kilometers, surviving a lunar night and/or discovering water ice. The first prize drops to $15 million if no team accomplishes the rover mission by the end of 2012, and the competition may be terminated if no one achieves it by the end of 2014. A $5 million second prize has been allotted if a second team is successful prior to 2014.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to pioneer the endless frontier, and I am excited that Carnegie Mellon will be there," said Jay Apt, a former NASA astronaut who is now an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business and a Distinguished Service Professor in Engineering & Public Policy.

A number of prototype machines for field-testing planetary robotics technology on Earth have been developed at the Field Robotics Center, which Whittaker directs. These include Nomad, which searched for meteorites in Antarctica using its own vision and intelligence, and Dante II, an eight-legged robot that retrieved gas samples from inside the Mt. Spurr Volcano. The latest is Scarab, produced for NASA this year, which will test robotic drilling technology that could be used to find underground ice and other resources that could be mined on the moon.

Whittaker leads Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing team, which has built "Boss," a self-driving SUV for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Urban Challenge. Boss is a semifinalist competing for a spot in the $2 million robotic road rally Nov. 3 in Victorville, Calif. Two robotic vehicles of Whittaker's Red Team placed second and third in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, a 130-mile desert race for autonomous robotic vehicles.

Landing a privately financed robot on the moon — an idea Whittaker has advocated for more than a decade — may be the most daunting challenge yet. "This is one where every detail counts," he explained. "It's truly one where if we haven't done everything, we haven't done anything."

The moon will severely test robotic technology, even more so than Mars. "At noon, it's hotter than boiling water and the lunar night stays colder than liquid nitrogen for two solid weeks," he noted. "Moon robots also risk harsh radiation and lunar dust, which has microscopic jagged edges that can rapidly clog joints and seals."

But it also presents opportunities. Because the moon is so close to Earth — only three seconds away for radio communication — it will be possible to deliver streaming video and two-way interaction. "Public access, made available through innovative corporate sponsorships, could be a breakthrough feature of the first-ever private robot on another body in space," he said. Commercial sponsors will be able to take ownership of innovative features, such as the first video feeds from the moon or an opportunity to take the wheel and explore the moon independently.

Whittaker is looking to establish the Carnegie Mellon team and find partners who have experience in launching spacecraft and landing payloads, as well as veterans of the full range of engineering challenges posed by lunar exploration. A Web site at explains the team's plans for winning the Google Lunar X Prize. The team contact is Michele Gittleman at 412-268-6556 or

"This challenge is a thrilling thing for space exploration and a thrilling thing for robotics," Whittaker said. "It's inevitable that someone will find a way to win it. Regardless of who takes home the cash, this achievement will enrich us all."

[Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.]