University sets sights on Google's race-to-the-moon prize

University's robotics team wants to win the $20M first prize

Carnegie Mellon University is planning to enter and win the US$20 million first prize offered by Google and the X Prize Foundation for landing and operating a robot on the moon by 2012.

William "Red" Whittaker, the university's roboticist is assembling a team of individuals who have experience in launching spacecraft and landing payloads and who can conquer the engineering challenges of landing a spaceship on the moon, according to a statement.

The Google Lunar X Prize contest is open to private companies worldwide that want to try their hands at building and landing a privately funded spaceship on the moon by 2012. The spaceship would include a robotic land rover that must complete several missions, including roaming at least 500 meters and sending videos, images and data back to Earth. The $30 million in prize money is composed of a US$20 million grand prize, a US$5 million second prize and US$5 million in bonus prizes.

"Planetary exploration is a dream we pursue and a technology we create," said Whittaker, the Fredkin research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, in the statement. "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."

Whittaker and others at the university's Field Robotics Center have already developed several prototypes for field-testing planetary robotics technology on Earth, including the recently developed Scarab, produced for NASA, which will test robotic drilling technology suitable for finding underground ice and other resources that could be mined on the moon.

According to the statement, Whittaker has advocated landing a privately funded robot on the moon for more than 10 years. But he knows the challenges involved in such a pursuit.

"This is one where every detail counts," he said in the statement. "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."

However, Whittaker also understands the opportunities presented by the contest.

"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."