Astrobotic’s Race to the Moon
By Meghan Holohan
CMU’s Planetary Robotics Lab is a cavernous room that resembles the service bay at a busy car dealership, full of tools and equipment and activity. James Lee, a senior in electrical and computer engineering, walks past something that looks like a pool table with ATV wheels to a small pyramid-like structure covered with a mosaic of black tiles. It’s a robotic rover, and one of its panels is open, revealing its guts—wires and microprocessors.
Lee and other students call it “Red Rover.” If all goes as planned, Red Rover in 2013 will be traveling 500 meters across the moon to the site of one of NASA’s Apollo landings.
Lee is one of several Carnegie Mellon University students who are helping Astrobotic Technology Inc. visit the moon. Headed by William “Red” Whittaker, CMU’s Fredkin Professor of Robotics, Astrobotic is one of 29 teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize—an award of up to $25 million for the first privately funded team to land on the moon and travel 500 meters, sending data and video to Earth. The rover is built. By the time you read this story, the lander will be ready, too.
Growing up, Lee found himself fascinated by outer space. Even though humans hadn’t been on the moon during his lifetime, he couldn’t stop dreaming about space travel. It amazed him to think that humans launched something that traveled more than 240,000 miles to the moon’s gray surface. He fondly recalls visits to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, wondering if he’d ever have an opportunity to work on a space launch.
Few, if any, humans now alive will have the opportunity to travel to the moon. But Lee’s contribution to Red Rover could enable him to get to the moon by proxy. “If you go to the moon before you’re 30, what else is there to do?” he says.
‘Others have plans … we’ve got a launch agreement’
Red Whittaker serves as Astrobotic’s CEO and chief technology officer. One of the world’s leading experts in autonomous navigation, Whittaker has long believed that robots would be capable of traveling around the moon’s surface and readying it for a permanent station. “The biggest challenge isn’t driving around the moon’s surface,” he says. “The greatest challenge is getting there.”
And unlike any of Astrobotic’s closest competitors for the Lunar X Prize, the team has a launch vehicle and a lander. “Others have plans,” Whittaker says. “Others have dreams. We’ve got a launch agreement … This is the juice and the opportunity.”
In February, Astrobotic announced that it had booked a flight with SpaceX, the private space exploration company headed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, to have its rover and lander launched to the moon using one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. “We are building the spacecraft, hardware and software to reach the moon,” Whittaker says.
The mission could blast off as early as December 2013. That’s the earliest that any team has planned a launch, and could lock up the prize for Astrobotic—if all goes well.
A tradition of technology prizes
The Google Lunar X Prize follows in a tradition of great technology prizes that spurred the transformation of entire industries. But some of these successes came at great risk. Perhaps the most famous contest—the Orteig Prize—originated in 1919, when hotelier Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 for the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. Orteig hoped to encourage the commercialization of air travel.
For years, pilots attempted the flight—and many met their deaths. In 1926, a young, unknown airmail pilot arrived at New York City’s Roosevelt Field with a monoplane, claiming he’d be the first to cross the Atlantic, and that he’d do it alone. Many expert fliers scoffed at his aircraft, believing it wouldn’t be able to complete the trip. But on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh arrived in France, a little more than 33 hours after leaving New York.
Orteig’s prize spurred the growth of commercial air travel and Lindbergh’s flight inspired generations of pilots. Since Lindbergh’s flight, several other prizes have sparked innovation, though most carried much less danger. In 1980, for instance, artificial intelligence pioneer Edward Fredkin—then a professor of computer science at CMU, and now a visiting research professor—offered a prize of $100,000 to the developer of the first computer that could beat a chess grandmaster. That led to IBM’s Deep Blue, which defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997.
In 1996, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis created the X Foundation. His first prize—created with fellow entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari—offered $10 million to any non-governmental group or agency that by 2004 could successfully launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The spacecraft had to reach an altitude of at least 100 kilometers and carry a pilot and a weight equal to two passengers. Burt Rutan won the $10 million prize and began working with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to make commercial space travel a reality.
In 2007, Google joined the X Foundation to create the Google Lunar X Prize. Under the terms of the contest, to win the prize, the winning team must land on the moon, drive 500 meters, and send data back to Earth. The purse decreases if the teams don’t arrive by 2015, or if a government agency arrives before a private group. Ninety percent of the teams’ funding must be private.
The prize is the just the beginning
But the $20 million grand prize, $5 million second-place prize and some $5 million in bonus prizes are really the beginning, not the destination. While the money covers some of the development costs of creating and launching the rover—and of course, everyone wants to be first—the Google X Prize is about more than money and fame. It’s about creating a model for private space exploration.
“The prize provides the kick start,” says Julian Ranger, founder of the British defense contractor STASYS and Astrobotic’s angel investor. “I think if you were focused purely on winning the prize, you might win it, but where do you go from there?”
When Astrobotic joined the contest in 2008, Whittaker and the Tartan Racing team were fresh off a victory at the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge. Boss, their unmanned Chevy Tahoe, successfully navigated a simulated urban obstacle course—the Urban Challenge—with an average speed of 14 mph to beat five other teams for the $2 million prize.
Winning the Urban Challenge emboldened Whittaker and his students, providing them with the confidence they could tackle another major contest and win. Providing the financing that could back up their knowledge became the job of David Gump.
Gump, a serial entrepreneur, in 1989 founded LunaCorp with the stated goal of putting a privately funded satellite into orbit around the moon. After Gump met Whittaker in 1995 at the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, N.J., the two began collaborating on a lunar rover. Lack of funding forced LunaCorp to be dissolved in 2003, but not before Gump got attention from high-profile clients, including RadioShack Corp., which signed on as an early sponsor of the company’s rover. LunaCorp even arranged for a RadioShack TV commercial to be filmed aboard the International Space Station.
Gump says the same technology that drove Boss to victory in the DARPA Grand Challenge—the ability to spot obstacles and rapidly recalculate its path—will guide Astrobotic’s lander to a safe arrival on the lunar surface.
And from the beginning, Whittaker and Gump have never left any room for doubt—they have to win, they say, because there’s no room for failure.
“There is only one winner. It only works out if you win,” Whittaker says.
That confidence, combined with Whittaker’s proven ability to build successful autonomous robots, has contributed heavily to Astrobotic’s ability to raise funds—one of the most important resources needed to win the Google Lunar X Prize.
Slightly crazy—but ‘second to none’
“When I first got involved in 2008, I looked at (Astrobotic) and thought it was slightly crazy as an investment, but the people involved are frankly incredible all the way down the line,” says Ranger, who built STASYS from a handful of employees into a 17 million U.K. pounds sterling business before its acquisition in 2005 by Lockheed Martin.
“Red Whittaker’s expertise in automated robots is second to none,” Ranger says. “It’s a remarkably good technical team and it’s also the only team that has a plan for multiple visits to the moon.”
Technology analyst and security consultant Michael Doornbos has been following all 29 Google Lunar X Prize teams, ranking them on various metrics such as funding, innovation, connections, progress, rover quality and “inspiration.” In most categories, Astrobotic leads the field, according to the Google Lunar X Prize scorecard posted on Doornbos’ website, Evadot.com. He estimates the team is about four months ahead of its closest competitors.
Yet Doornbos is hesitant to declare any team a “winner” until the rover is strapped on a launch vehicle, heading to the moon. And while he considers Astrobotic’s leadership and funding to be two important reasons why the team is leading so many categories, he believes any of the top eight teams have a chance of claiming first prize.
“The difference between first place and eighth place is just a few points,” Doornbos says. “The top eight teams have a clear shot at launching something.”
To arrive at his rankings, Doornbos interviewed the teams, evaluating their plans, some of which they must make public as part of the contest rules.
“I think (success) has a lot to do with the leadership,” he says. Astrobotic’s leaders “believe in the importance of the prize and the mission.”
If any of the top eight teams received a huge influx of cash, it could help catapult that team past Astrobotic, Doornbos says. And that’s something that Astrobotic doesn’t take lightly. “We understand that it is a race, and any one of those teams that come into enough money to solve their weaknesses could start sprinting,” Gump says.
But Astrobotic has designed a business plan that Gump and Whittaker say will help secure steady funding and create a sustainable business model. The spacecraft can carry an additional payload besides the rover, so Astrobotic is offering other companies the chance to ride to the moon. Numerous researchers are trying to deliver scientific experiments to the moon, but without any means of getting there, their research has languished.
Astrobotic is also selling sponsorships and naming rights, and may offer exclusive video and other content to raise revenue, Gump says. “You have to have the cash to do the exploration,” he says, before quoting The Right Stuff: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Biggest asset might be CMU’s students
While money is one of the challenges to winning the Google Lunar X Prize, the other difficulty is finding experts with the technical know-how to build a lander and a rover. And here’s where Astrobotic may have its greatest asset—its partnership with the Robotics Institute and its Field Robotics Center, headed by Whittaker.
In fact, Ranger argues that Astrobotic’s biggest advantage over the other teams is the power of Carnegie Mellon and its students. “There is a certain sort of innovation freshness that you get with youngsters,” he says. “Those students are picking up an enormous amount working on this project, and it will help them in their careers.”
In fact, students are playing hands-on roles in every aspect of the design and testing of the rover and the lander. Kevin Peterson, a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute who was also part of the Boss team, is working on the systems that will control the lander’s descent to the moon’s surface. He says the engineering is at a “much higher level” than Boss. “Thousands of things can go wrong and end the mission,” Peterson says. For one thing, he says, testing for a land vehicle is easier. “Earth’s gravity is six times as strong as the moon’s,” he says. “If we want to test the rover you have to offset gravity and you use a pulley (to do so). It’s very difficult.”
As a young boy, Peterson regularly visited CMU where his father, Jeffrey, is a professor in the Physics Department and a member of its Astrophysics and Cosmology research group. While Kevin Peterson (E’02,’04, CS’09) did occasionally help his dad tinker with telescopes, he didn’t dream of space exploration. Rather, he found himself enamored with solving tough engineering problems. When he worked on the Urban Challenge, he found that fixing complexities invigorated him—like understanding why Boss didn’t recognize pedestrians and drove right toward them. As he considered Ph.D. dissertation topics, he realized the Google Lunar X Prize team presented a unique combination of technological challenges.
For example, NASA’s Apollo missions only had to land in a very general spot on the moon, but a grant awarded to Astrobotic by NASA requires its lander to touch down within a specified 100-meter area. The Apollo missions used radar to calculate the distance from orbit to the moon’s surface, but Peterson says Astrobotic will “take advantage of computer vision technology and lasers and use the new technology to land very, very softly.”
Designing the lander for a soft landing also means it won’t need a large, heavy engineered structure to absorb a severe impact, which leaves more room in the spacecraft for scientific payloads, according to Heather Jones, doctoral student in the Robotics Institute. “We’ve gone through a lot of iterations of the lander (before) we got to the point of doing detailed analysis and designing of the parts,” she says.
Made primarily of aluminum donated by Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, Astrobotic’s lander is a squarish platform with four tanks for fuel on it. The rover rests in the middle, and after the lander descends to the moon, a ramp will lower, allowing the rover to roll gently to the moon’s surface and begin its trek. The legs on the lander must be able to withstand impact velocity. And if something fails during the landing, the team wants the rover to still be able to get off the landing vehicle.
Once on the surface, the rover will traverse the surface of the moon during lunar noon, when temperatures go well above 100 degrees Celsius—hot enough to boil water on Earth. Figuring out how to draw heat away from the electrical components has been one of Jones’ tasks.
In a personal computer, a fan can be used to draw air away from heated components. With no atmosphere, a cooling fan won’t work on the moon. When Jones joined the team after taking a course with Whittaker as a graduate student, she started building thermal models of the rover and lander, to analyze how excess heat can be channeled away from the onboard electronics. The rover is asymmetric, with solar panels on one side to provide power, and a large radiator on the other side to dump heat.
While the solar panels on the rover’s angled face will provide power, they’ll also direct heat away from the rover’s electronics.
Before grad school, Jones worked on a NASA project for nearly three years, running simulations to see what would happen if something went wrong with the mechanical docking arm on the International Space Station. Ideally, Jones’ calculations for the ISS would never be used as long as the docking arm worked correctly. But when it comes to her work on Red Rover, every calculation is necessary.
“It’s a little scary, but pretty exciting,” Jones says. “This is a very exciting project to work on and we’re definitely moving forward.”
Exciting, exhilarating, overwhelming
Building a successful autonomous vehicle means the designers must anticipate any possible problems. Consider the consistency of the moon dust. It’s not soft and powdery; compared to Earth’s dirt, it’s sharp and rough, and jagged rocks cover the moon’s surface. Motors must be protected within the rover’s body, instead of the wheel hubs as on Mars rovers.
Steering the rover is another roadblock. It might seem easy to drive a rover using a joystick from the ground, but Lee, who leads the software development and vision systems for the rovers, says there’s a three-second delay in communication between Earth and the moon, meaning Earth-side controllers can’t see barriers in the rover’s path in real time. “In three seconds, the rover goes 15 centimeters,” Lee says. “If you’re 15 centimeters away from a crater, you’ll crash.”
Instead, controllers will give general directions to the rover, which will steer itself with the help of stereo cameras and 3D topographic maps of the moon. Lee calls it “supervised autonomy.” Controllers will click on a point on the 3D map and the rover will roll in that direction, calculating its distance from obstacles and steering itself around them. (As another way to generate public interest, Astrobotic plans on sponsoring a contest—the winner will be allowed to steer the rover on the moon.)
As Lee describes the rover’s navigation systems, his excitement is palpable. Like the rest of the team members, he finds the idea of sending something into space both exhilarating and overwhelming. While Astrobotic’s team members are living and breathing the mission, many people—even many people at CMU—are only vaguely aware of the project. But to everyone connected with Astrobotic, the Google Lunar X Prize is more than a mission—it’s a real step toward making commercial space exploration an ongoing reality.
Ranger, who once thought his investment was crazy, now finds himself energized by its potential. Astrobotic has “the technical expertise and plan,” he says, to create “a sustainable space future.”
The year 2013, he predicts, “will be the start of a new space race.”
Meghan Holohan is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.