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Carnegie Mellon To Compete In Google Lunar X-Prize 59

An anonymous reader writes "Google's Lunar X-Prize already has a prominent entry. William Whittaker, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon University said that he will be assembling a team to develope a robot that will be be competing for the $20 million grand prize. According to a TG Daily story, Whittaker has some unfair advantages, as he previously developed a lunar rover for NASA that 'can find concentrations of hydrogen, possibly water and other volatile chemicals on the moon that could be mined to produce fuel, water and air that are essential for supporting lunar outposts.' The Lunar X-Prize runs until the end of 2012 and Carnegie Mellon's announcement could be a first indication that researchers are taking this challenge very seriously."
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Carnegie Mellon To Compete In Google Lunar X-Prize

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  • How difficult would it be to build a lunar module large enough to accomodate ummmm lets say one Darl Mcbride?
    • Depends. Does he have to be able to get out in one piece, and does he get a suit?
      • My guess is that there won't be any need to accommodate oxygen and fuel for a return flight. That should save some weight.
      • Depends. Does he have to be able to get out in one piece, and does he get a suit?

        More to the point, does he have to go in in one piece?! ;-)

    • by drix ( 4602 )
      The research has been done. I suggest you read up on the Schwarzgerat. :-)
  • by morgan_greywolf ( 835522 ) on Friday September 21, 2007 @08:26AM (#20694779) Homepage Journal
    If I were organizing a team, I'd hire at least ex-NASA engineer with the appropriate experience if I could, too. AFAIK, there was nothing in the rules saying that they couldn't do that. In fact, I'm pretty sure both Jeff Bezos' team Blue Origin and Scaled Composites both had ex-NASA engineers working with them on the first X Prize.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mdwh2 ( 535323 )
      Indeed - given the difficult of doing this at all, I would hope that teams take as many advantages as they can, as opposed to making it arbitrarily harder just to maintain some illusion of "fairness".

      The purpose of the competition is to get a rover on the moon, and to encourage private space exploration. The competition is not "having space travel done by people with no experience".
      • Fairness (Score:3, Insightful)

        by benhocking ( 724439 )
        I agree completely. I think we often sacrifice too much in the name of "fairness". We should never make things harder for those entering at the lower-end, but we should not take away advantages of those at the upper-end, either. That said, there are some ways to improve fairness (you can never really achieve fairness, only make things more fair or less fair – or both) without sacrificing anything. Perhaps something akin to information sharing could help, for example.
    • Minor point, but Blue Origin was not a contestant in the Ansari X Prize.
    • The controversy should be the drilling of the moon. It's possible we could destroy evidence within the geology of the moon that could never be recovered. Our geological techniques and our ability to derive energy will both only continue to advance into the future. Why should we take a chance in destroying something precious, so close to Earth, when it is likely to be unnecessary in the future?
  • Is it really any surprise that researchers are taking such a challenge seriously? Most challenges of this nature generate a lot of interest. Not for the money(the cost of succeding often tend to exceed the size of the prize), but for the publicity and pride involved in succeeding. We are vain animals after all.
  • by krgallagher ( 743575 ) on Friday September 21, 2007 @08:40AM (#20694895) Homepage
    "Whittaker has some unfair advantages, as he previously developed a lunar rover for NASA that 'can find concentrations of hydrogen, possibly water and other volatile chemicals on the moon that could be mined to produce fuel, water and air that are essential for supporting lunar outposts.' "

    Why is this unfair? Here is the summarized requirements from the Google Lunar X-Prize [] home page:

    COMPETITION GUIDELINES: To win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a team must successfully land a privately funded craft on the lunar surface and survive long enough to complete the mission goals of roaming about the lunar surface for at least 500 meters and sending a defined data package, called a "Mooncast", back to Earth.

    PRIZES: The total purse of the Google Lunar X PRIZE is $30 million (USD).
    GRAND PRIZE: A $20 million Grand Prize will be awarded to the team that can soft land a craft on the Moon that roams for at least 500 meters and transmits a Mooncast back to Earth. The Grand Prize is $20M until December 31st 2012; thereafter it will drop to $15M until December 31st 2014 at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X PRIZE Foundation
    SECOND PRIZE: A $5 million Second Prize will be offered as well, providing an extra incentive for teams to continue to compete, and increasing the possibility that multiple teams will succeed. Second place will be available until December 31st 2014 at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X PRIZE Foundation
    BONUSES: An additional $5 million in bonus prizes can be won by successfully completing additional mission tasks such as roving longer distances (> 5,000 meters), imaging man made artifacts (e.g. Apollo hardware), discovering water ice, and/or surviving through a frigid lunar night (approximately 14.5 Earth days). The competing lunar spacecraft will be equipped with high-definition video and still cameras, and will send images and data to Earth, which the public will be able to view on the Google Lunar X PRIZE website.

    MOONCAST: The Mooncast consists of digital data that must be collected and transmitted to the Earth composed of the following:
    High resolution 360 panoramic photographs taken on the surface of the Moon;
    Self portraits of the rover taken on the surface of the Moon;
    Near-real time videos showing the craft's journey along the lunar surface;
    High Definition (HD) video;
    Transmission of a cached set of data, loaded on the craft before launch (e.g. first email from the Moon).
    Teams will be required to send a Mooncast detailing their arrival on the lunar surface, and a second Mooncast that provides imagery and video of their journey roaming the lunar surface. All told, the Mooncasts will represent approximately a Gigabyte of stunning content returned to the Earth.
    The complete Google Lunar X PRIZE Competition Guidelines are available in English, the official language of the prize, on the Google Lunar X PRIZE homepage.

    It sounds to me like Carnegie Mellon University has the right idea. There are quite a few talented rocket scientists [] out there. Why not utilize them as a resource?

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by raehl ( 609729 )
      There are quite a few talented rocket scientists out there. Why not utilize them as a resource?

      Just make sure you give them the metric units conversion test first.
      • Just make sure you give them the metric units conversion test first.

        Luckily they will have access to the powerful conversion capabilities of google calculator. Allowing them to do such queries as these:

        238900 miles in kilometers []

    • There are quite a few talented rocket scientists out there. Why not utilize them as a resource?
      Geez. It's not brain surgery!

      - RG>
  • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Friday September 21, 2007 @08:57AM (#20695021)

    There are several things to realize about this prize. First, the rover is very roughly a third of the work. I'd break into getting to LEO, getting to the lunar surface, and all the stuff on the surface (rover, video, communication, etc.).

    If you're trying to do this on a budget comparable to the prize, each of those is very challenging. If you buy your orbital launch, the cheapest option is probably a SpaceX Falcon 1, which starts at $7M -- a third of your budget already. That means you get *one* attempt. This prize won't be won on the first flight of the hardware, not with a budget even approaching the $20M purse.

    Getting from (Earth) orbit to the surface is tricky, but probably the easiest piece. Carmack is very close to demonstrating a large fraction of that with Pixel at the Lunar Lander Challenge in October. Left to do would be nontrivial navigation and a nontrivial performance boost. Here, buying the hardware you need certainly isn't off the shelf, but most of the pieces might be available. I suspect you'd find yourself blowing another large fraction of your budget even before the requisite development on this part.

    The lunar rover and communications presents another set of challenges, which it sounds like CMU may well have experience with.

    But, I'd say hiring NASA engineers is the wrong way to win this on a budget. NASA couldn't even begin to touch this prize for $100M. If you hire engineers who are used to working with budgets on a NASA size, you'll get a solution that costs NASA price tags, or close to them. If you want to spend a couple hundred million winning the prize, just to prove you can, it'll work -- but I would say that's kind of silly. I don't think this prize will be won for less than $20M, but I think it will be won for not a huge amount more.

    Personally, I think Carmack and the rest of the people at Armadillo Aerospace are much more interesting to watch. If he continues at his current pace, he'll have hardware in LEO long before this prize expires, and on a much smaller budget than anyone has done before. And he's already been talking about what would be needed to win this prize. If you want to watch the interesting show, don't look to the people that say they'll do it the old way -- look to the people that want to do it orders of magnitude cheaper than it's been done before, by turning every piece of conventional wisdom on its head, and are busy proving they can rather than trumpeting their barely formed plans to the press.

    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      Do you think that Scaled Composites won the X-Prize on a budget of only $10 million, the prize's actual amount? The point of these prizes is not to make money, but to win, to be the one to do it. Scaled Composites didn't make money on the X-Prize, but their victory has led to being the one to build Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceflight vehicles.
      • by evanbd ( 210358 )

        The X Prize is an apt comparison. Estimates I've heard put Scaled's budget for the $10M prize at approximately $30M. I'm reasonably confident the prize can't be won for $20M -- but I think it can be won for not a lot more than that, as I said in my original post. The point of winning the X-prize was only in small part to prove it can be done. A large part was as the impetus for and partial funding of the early R&D for SpaceShipTwo. There are certainly markets available to you if you can win this pr

    • by dbolger ( 161340 ) on Friday September 21, 2007 @09:30AM (#20695349) Homepage
      If you hire engineers who are used to working with budgets on a NASA size, you'll get a solution that costs NASA price tags, or close to them.

      I would say you could stop the costs ballooning by hiring NASA engineers, and not NASA bureaucrats. I have been of the opinion for some time that the problem with NASA is that it is expected to do too little science with too much money (don't hate me!). Give these people ten million and tell them to get to the moon, and you will come out with a lean, well designed system that can get there and do what you want. Give them one hundred million and you'll get a bloated project with too many unnecessary people on board and too much red tape to do anything properly. That is the whole point of things like the X-Prize. The knowledge and experience are out there. The technology (or close to it) is out there. The scientific community is slowly coming to the realisation that leaving things like this to government agencies will not give results. NASA has provided the groundwork without which none of this would be possible, but it is time to take what we have learned there, and run with it.
      • If you hire engineers who are used to working with budgets on a NASA size, you'll get a solution that costs NASA price tags, or close to them.

        To cut costs, I would certainly look at NASA subcontractors instead.
    • I disagree about hiring NASA engineers. There's no such thing as an engineer that builds just expensive stuff. Engineers build stuff that meets the requirements.

      Just make the price a higher priority than safety or other factors.
    • More like the break will be a direct shot to a lunar orbit, followed by lunar landing and then doing the work. One thing that I have been thinking about is that the requirements do NOT state that it must be a wheeled vehicle. As such, that could also mean that a lander that can more around would count. So, take the falcon9 heavy and combine with the armadillo pixel. Then allow it to jump all over. This would be a LOT cheaper and easier to do, since these will ready within a few years, be fully tested BY 20
      • by evanbd ( 210358 )

        Falcon 9 (not Heavy) pricing starts at $35M. I'm hopeful that the prize can be won for less than that. Something like Pixel fits on a Falcon 1, I believe, but not with much performance to spare -- you only get to LEO, no extra, that way.

        I don't think it's been clarified whether ballistic hops after landing qualifies; it's certainly been mentioned, but I'm guessing it doesn't count. If it does, it's clearly easier to bring along a bit of extra propellant.

        • First, it is very doubtful that this will be a money maker, other than advertisement AND partial funding for making it to the moon. In fact, few of the Xprizes pay off by themselves.

          Second, the falcon 9 can carry 4900 kg to GEO. I do not know the costs to reach escape speed, but even if it costs another 50% of the weight, then the weight is 2450 kg. The current pixel with a 30 kg payload is 680 kg. I would guess that it would be tight, but doable to send that to luna.

          But yeah, I am in hopes that hops will
          • by evanbd ( 210358 )

            I'm not saying I think it will be a money maker. I'm saying two basic things: First, I think the budget needs to be comparable to the prize. $20M to $50M, not hundreds. Unless you happen to find an investor with *lots* of money to throw at it, but I think that gets a lot harder for a $300M budget than it was for SpaceShipOne's $30M. Second, if you're *not* spending hundreds of millions, you'd be a fool to count on it working on the first try (even if you are, it's debatable). If you're planning on a $

            • Early indications on White Knight and SS1 were that they spent something like 30-40 million. And that was on just a 10 million prize. I am not going to be surprised to see this be 50-100 million. As to investors, well, keep in mind that Carmack is the minor palyer on this. Musk has literally billions to spend. In addition, he is expected to be profitable by 2010. If he is succesful with the NASA cots which will pay him 250M, that is pure gravy (which is expected to lead to multiple launches to the ISS for t
  • by Billosaur ( 927319 ) * <wgrother@oEINSTE ... minus physicist> on Friday September 21, 2007 @09:03AM (#20695065) Journal

    To optimize power efficiency, the robot must be as light as possible - but to operate the coring drill, the vehicle also has to be massive enough to apply sufficient downward pressure on the drill and counter the torque of the rotating drill, Carnegie Mellon noted. It is estimated that Scarab must weigh at least 250 kilograms, or about 550 pounds.

    The Apollo astronauts found out a hard truth about the surface of the Moon when the wen too drill deep core samples -- the Moon is pretty hard. Drilling required a lot of effort, even when they had appropriate equipment. Drills generated a lot of torque as they tried to penetrate the lunar hardpan. The lunar surface is apparently very compacted, unlike earthly soil which undergoes the action of weathering. I'm not sure 250 kilos will necessarily be enough unless they find an efficient method to hold the rover down to the surface as it drills.

    • Maybe they could get the extra weight by piling some rocks on it.
    • I'm not sure 250 kilos will necessarily be enough unless they find an efficient method to hold the rover down to the surface as it drills.

      How about four smaller drills at the corners - don't need to penetrate too far - just enough to anchor the corners down. Or pitons and cams to anchor itself before drilling. Or some nice sticky pads base don the new gecko-like technologies around.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I haven't read up on lunar drilling, but wouldn't it make sense to use a rotary hammer (hammer drill)? Short impacts can overcome the resistance of the surface being drilled, without overcoming the average (over time) force exerted by gravity.
    • Look, a rover is not necessarily wheeled. What happens if the pixel is used to jump around? If done right, the "lander" is the probe. More importantly, it can then do a dozen or more jumps. The biggest advantage is that spacex AND armadillo (or new shepard) would be ready by 2011 with TESTED platforms. Use spacex to get to the moon (perhaps with a lunar satellite or 2), and pixel or new shepard to get to the surface. That would have more than enough weight to serve as a stable drilling.
    • Just use two counter-rotating drills simultaneously. Might be tricky when you first start and one bit bites into the rock before the other, but once they're both in the torque just gets converted into tensile and compressive stresses in the cojoining structure (like in a Chinook helicopter [])

      Getting sufficient down force sounds like it'd be the hard part. A few clamps or climbing cams might do the trick if you can find a good location to insert them.

  • Check out who they are competing against [].
  • by CrazyJim1 ( 809850 ) on Friday September 21, 2007 @10:30AM (#20696073) Journal
    I was a CMU grad when I barely(So barely I wouldn't count it) helped with the last X prize he did in the autonomous race in the desert. If you think you want to work on a project of this scale, you have something to offer, and you have enough money to live in Pittsburgh for a few years, then I recommend you contact him. He was really nice when we met.
  • Why are these contests and prizes all-or-nothing? Why not split the single goal and 30 million prize money into smaller goals and smaller chunks of prize money so more people can participate? Is there any reason why this xprize can't be split in two? One $15mil prize for designing a rocket to carry a 50lb payload to the moon, and another $15mil prize for designing a 50lb robot to land, roam around, and beam pictures back to earth? Could these not be split even further to make the contest challenges and priz
    • If you had RTFA (I know, I know...) you'd know that this prize is actually split in a few smaller chunks. $20 million for the main goal, $5 million for some extra goals (surviving a lunar night etc.) and $5 million for second place.
  • Now Google has provided an incentive to send some trash to a different rock. Screw thinking "Green", it's too late for that... Think "Gray"! Save the moon!
  • by raddan ( 519638 ) on Friday September 21, 2007 @12:38PM (#20698151)
    Robotics is hard. Landing on the moon is even harder.

    Whittaker also has some previous experience with the DARPA Grand Challenge [], the desert robotics race, which CMU (his team) lost both times. He obviously knows his stuff when it comes to mechanical engineering, and were it not for the Stanford team, CMU would have undoubtedly won. But the Stanford team showed that brainpower triumphed over the "brute force" methods that CMU used. Stanford tackled the "hard computer science" problem instead, and used a standard video camera instead of the laser rangefinders (and pre-computed waypoints) that CMU used. I would have liked to see the Challenge continue because I think that Stanford's surprise victory would have changed the race dramatically the following year.

    There's a pretty entertaining NOVA [] documentary about it as well. My brother (an engineer) and I (a CS student) could help but laugh at and feel envy for the guy who built the self-guided motorcycle ("Ghost Rider").

    So, yeah, CMU has Whittaker, and lots of money, but that almost doesn't matter.
  • I want to be a TSA guy at the Pittsburgh Spaceport!

    I figure they can build it on the old slag heaps south of Squirrel Hill.
  • by peacefinder ( 469349 ) <> on Friday September 21, 2007 @12:58PM (#20698499) Journal
    From what I've been reading*, they amatuer rocket community is giving this challenge a lot of thought. There are development plans that look realistically capable of putting a lander on the moon for a budget close to the size of the prize. (Although the timeframe is tight.) Some of these plans call for multiple attempts with anticipation of initial failures.

    It seems that one of the hardest parts of the prize is the communications problem. The prize conditions specify approximately a gigabyte of data to be transmitted from the moon, with some data gathered on-site and some carried along by the vehicle. It turns out that the data rate necessary to transmit that much data within one lunar day seems to be higher than can realistically be achieved without an aimed high-gain antenna. That in turn puts a lower bound on the size of hardware that has to be landed on the moon.

    [*: On the most fasciniating list I've ever lurked.]
  • Remember that RedZone failed to complete the first DARPA grand challenge (although they got the farthest of all competitors) and they came in second place at the second event. They are not unbeatable.
  • Saying "Google's X-Prize" is not correct. Much like a building or stadium that is named after a sponsor, the name and sponsor can change, but the owners remain the same. In this case, Google is the sponsor, and the X-Prize belongs to the X-Prize foundation.
  • The robot is less than 10% of the work. If you put the communications on the lander you could do the whole robot part with an off the shelf RC car with new wheels and geared way down. I'd score it as follows: If you are Buying a ride to orbit: Robot 5% Communication 20% LEO to softland 70% Launcher integration 5% If you are also building a launcher: Getting to LEO 70% Softland 25% Everything else 5% I know something of what I speak I just spent a year preparing for the XPC and did not make it. (Unreaso
  • I initially read the researcher as William Shatner. Had me confused for a second.

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. -- Ernest Rutherford