Carnegie Mellon Sets Sights on Google's Lunar X Prize

William?Red? Whittaker and the wizards at Carnegie Mellon University?s RoboticsInstitute in Pittsburgh, hope to use their expertise to snag $20 million in theGoogle Lunar X Prize.

CarnegieMellon is one of seven teams so far to have sent in a letter of intent and a$1,000 deposit to compete for the $20 million grand prize, according to BrettAlexander, the X Prize Foundation?s executive director of space prizes and the Wirefly X Prize Cup.

Announced Sept. 13at Wired magazine?s NextFest event in Los Angeles, the GoogleLunar X Prize is offering $20 million to the first team that can soft landa privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, travel a minimum distance of 1,640feet (500 meters) and transmit high-definition video and other images and databack to Earth for viewing over the Internet. Second place is worth $5 millionand up to an additional $5 million in bonus prizes can be won by completingextra tasks beyond the core mission.

David Gump,president of Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space) and anadvisor to Whittaker?s Team X-PLORE, said the team wasted no time registeringfor the competition, sending in its letter of intent via overnight delivery theday it was announced. Gump said the team since has translated the contestguidelines into 50 ?expressed or implied? mission requirements.

?We arealready making great progress coming up with a mission design that will win theprize,? Gump said in a Sept. 24 interview.

NeitherGump nor Whittaker are strangers to planning lunar missions meant to be done onthe cheap. Gump spent most of the 1990s running LunaCorp, a small firm thatleft no stone unturned in searching for the right combination of corporate andgovernment sponsorships to get a profit-driven lunar lander mission off theground.

LunaCorpeventually signed RadioShack as a sponsor and helped the electronics retailerpull off a number of space-based promotions before Gump folded the company in2003 to focus on the space transportation company t/Space.

CarnegieMellon?s Robotics Institute, meanwhile, not only worked closely with LunaCorpon mission studies, but also submitted multiple Discovery-class missionproposals to NASA in the 1990s for robotic lunar landers and rovers designed toexplore the craters and polar regions of the Moon.

NASA passedon those proposals, in part because the agency was not especially interested atthat time in exploring the Moon. But Carnegie Mellon-built robots have been putthrough their paces in a variety of environments here on Earth, includingmeteorite-hunting expeditions in Antarctica. Whittaker and the engineers at hisinstitute also contributed software to NASA?sMars Exploration Rovers, which have been exploring the red planet since2003.

Whittakersaid that Carnegie Mellon is ready to meet the Google Lunar X Prize challengehead on.

?CarnegieMellon is a world leader in software and world leader in robotics and we haveexperience with and appetite for challenges,? Whittaker said in a Sept. 26interview.

In 2005, apair of driverless automobiles designed by Carnegie Mellon completed a 132-mile(212.4-kilometer) trek through the Nevada desert, taking second and third placein the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency?s (DARPA) GrandChallenge.

On Nov. 3,Carnegie Mellon will compete in DARPA?s $2 million Urban Challenge, entering adriverless Chevy Tahoe sport utility vehicle, dubbed Boss, that will attempt toautonomously navigate a closed 59-mile (96-kilometer) course in Victorville, Calif., complete with stop lights, speed limits and traffic.

NeitherWhittaker nor Gump would say much about Team X-PLORE?s technical approach atthis early stage, and Gump said that is unlikely to change even as the approachmatures.

?You haveto remember that this is a race with competitors that shouldn?t know about yourstrategy,? Gump said.

But bothWhittaker and Gump said they believed securing early financing, either in theform of corporate sponsorship or a benevolent angel, is critical.

?What isclear from the Ansari X Prize is that you need to have solid funding soon ? aPaul Allen equivalent who can make sure that you are motoring away at a goodspeed,? Gump said. ?One of our team?s top priorities is securing that earlyfunding.?

Allen,co-founder of Microsoft, bankrolled the $20 million development of ScaledComposites? piloted SpaceShipOne suborbital launch system, which won the$10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by completing two back-to-back flightsto the edge of space.

Whittakersaid the real trick of challenges like the Google Lunar X Prize is coming upwith an approach that ensures that all stakeholders win, even if the cash prizeexceeds the team?s grasp. Win or lose at the Urban Challenge next month,Whittaker said, Carnegie Mellon?s teammates and sponsors will see a return ontheir investments.

?If a teamwere backed by $400 million of philanthropic money on Day 1, the technical andprogrammatic challenges for X Prize success would be foregone. There would beno difficulty,? Whittaker said. ?You can buy victory, but not profitably.?

The key toprofitability, according to Whittaker, is making sure that there are a seriesof payoff opportunities for sponsors along the way to the actual competition.Auctioning off naming rights and holding contests to select people who willactually get to drive the rover once it lands were among the examples he andGump mentioned.

Similarpitches were made to would-be corporate sponsors during Gump and Whittaker?sLunaCorp days. But Gump said there are some big differences between whatLunaCorp tried back then and what Team X-PLORE is facing today, not the leastof which is the involvement of Google, the Internet powerhouse worth more than$170 billion.

?Two greatthings that Google did is they put the Google stamp of credibility on theoverall enterprise and they also set the target to be relatively fixed andsmall effort,? Gump said.

?The Googlethreshold for wining the prize is pretty constrained. You have to land and makea broadcast, move 500 meters and broadcast again. This means you don?t have tobroadcast while moving which is very difficult. It means you don?t have to laston the surface for longer than it takes to move 500 meters and you don?t haveto take along tens of kilograms of science instruments.?

But thetechnical challenges still are formidable. Whittaker and Gump said building alander that is capable of making a soft touchdown on the lunar surface isprobably the biggest single expense ahead for any team. Launch is not cheap either,with prices starting around $6 million for Space Exploration Technologies?still unproven Falcon 1 launcher and going up from there.

Broadcastingat least 1 gigabyte of high-definition quality video back from the moon is nomean feat either.

?That?s themost stressing requirement in the list,? said Gump, noting that he knows of nospace-qualified high-definition (HD) video camera. Japanese broadcaster NHK andSilver Springs, Md.-based Discovery Communications got together in 2006 for thefirst live HD broadcast from space. But even in the relatively benign radiationenvironment aboard the international space station, ?many, many pixels werebeing knocked out by radiation damage? within a matter of days, Gump said.Travel time to the Moon ranges from several days to a month, depending on thetechnical approach.

 ?Wehaven?t gone to Mike Malin yet to ask him what he might charge us for aMars-qualified camera but you certainly cannot walk down to BestBuy and get anHD camera that can survive the radiation environment,? Gump said.

SanDiego-based Malin Space Science Systems has built numerous cameras for NASAMars missions and currently is working on a video camera for the 2009 MarsScience Laboratory spacecraft. That video camera will be capable of 720 linesof progressively scanned vertical display resolution ? a common HD videostandard known as 720p.

MikeRavine, advanced projects manager at Malin, said it is not a given that thecamera being designed for the Mars Science Lab (MSL) would work as is on a lunarmission. ?I can imagine a mission where with the overall package it would makesense to build a copy of the MSL camera, but I can also imagine a number ofmission approaches were it would not make sense,? he said.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.