Finding Apollo

Forty years later, we’re about to see what the moonwalkers left behind.

The shadow of their lander dominates a mosaic of the numbered photos Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took out their window before leaving the moon. (NASA/Panorama assembled by R. Farwell for the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)
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And that’s just Apollo. Some of the most fascinating pictures the LRO takes will show obscure spacecraft that nobody’s seen, or even thought much about, since they left Earth more than 40 years ago. Phil Stooke, a planetary geographer at the University of Western Ontario and author of The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration, has a list of targets he can’t wait to see, including two Russian spacecraft—Luna 9, which in 1966 made the first soft landing on the moon, and Luna 17, which in 1970 delivered the first geological rover, Lunokhod 1. Neither spacecraft’s location is precisely known, says Stooke. Nor are the exact locations of many of the craters made when orbiters and spent rocket stages crashed into the moon in the 1960s. Altogether, about 100 tons of junk is strewn across dozens of spots around the moon. Over the next two years, we’ll rediscover much of it.

Of course, the LRO’s mission is not finding old spacecraft. The orbiter is producing high-resolution maps for planning the next wave of lunar exploration. But since astronauts aren’t expected to head moonward until 2020 at the earliest, the initial users of the maps are likely to be surface-exploring robots, and the first of those could arrive as early as next summer, in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. An intense contest is under way among several groups vying for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which will go to the first privately funded team that lands a rover on the moon, drives it at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile), and returns video and still images to Earth.

Just as the first X Prize spurred aircraft designer Burt Rutan to build a one-man rocketplane that flew to the edge of space and back (see “Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot,” June/July 2005), the Google prize is meant to encourage innovation in robotic exploration of the moon. So far, 13 teams have entered, from as far away as Romania and Malaysia.

The Rutan in this race is Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Whittaker, one of the world’s foremost roboticists. Whittaker-built rovers have explored volcanoes, deserts, and Antarctic ice fields. Last year one of his vehicles won the DARPA Urban Challenge, a road rally for autonomous robot cars, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Whittaker’s X Prize team, Astrobotic Technology, is loaded with experience, starting with project manager Tony Spear, the man who led the NASA mission that in 1996 landed the Sojourner rover on Mars. The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, currently operating the Phoenix spacecraft on Mars, is a partner. Astrobotic’s president is David Gump, a space entrepreneur who in 1989 started a venture called LunaCorp, which also planned to drive a rover around the moon and sell the video. Whittaker was to have built the robot. Although LunaCorp folded in 2003, Gump is betting that it was mostly because the company was ahead of its time.

Not that Astrobotic’s proposed “Tranquillity Trek” to the Apollo 11 site will be a cakewalk. For one thing, says Gump, the  mission will cost about $100 million—far more than Google is paying in prize money. While he looks for financial backers, the technical team is working feverishly, trying to hold on to the possibility of a launch next year. Astrobotic claims that once it raises the money, it can be on the moon within 18 months.

After landing, Astrobotic’s rover will have just 14 days—a lunar day—to reach the Apollo 11 site and take pictures. Equipping the robot to withstand the frigid, two-week lunar night would have complicated the engineering and driven up the cost. So this will be a short, focused sprint to Tranquillity Base. The rover moves at “about a human walking pace,” says Gump, and will have to reach its destination before nightfall, so success requires a precision landing. The team expects to come down about half a mile from its target, with a precision measured in meters—unprecedented accuracy for a robotic planetary lander.

This is where another Astrobotic partner, Raytheon, comes in. The company built the Navy missile that intercepted and destroyed a military reconnaissance satellite falling from orbit last February. Astrobotic will license the Raytheon “digital scene matching” technology used in cruise missiles—which compares real-time pictures of the looming target with photos stored in an onboard computer—to ensure precise navigation.

Another serious contender to win the Google prize is Quantum3, based in Vienna, Virginia, and led by NASA veterans including Courtney Stadd, the agency’s former chief of staff, and Liam Sarsfield, its former deputy chief engineer. Quantum3 is counting on a new method of landing that Stadd says is different from what other teams are using. Then, instead of rolling on wheels, the lander will “hop” around the surface with small rocket blasts. The price tag, says Stadd, is much lower than $100 million, but is still more than the Google prize money. Like Astrobotic, Quantum3 is heading for the Apollo 11 site. As of May, Stadd still hoped his team could make it there by the 40th anniversary, in July 2009.

All the proposed traffic around Tranquillity Base makes some in the space community worry that the historic Apollo sites will get trampled. Beth O’Leary, a New Mexico State University anthropologist who has led a campaign, so far unsuccessful, to declare the Apollo 11 site a national historic landmark, is concerned that the robots could inadvertently destroy a priceless artifact. Despite the best intentions of the X Prize teams, she says, “it’s untried technology.”

So far, it’s a controversy without much argument. “Our top priority is protecting Apollo 11 from any disturbance,” says  Gump. “We’re not rolling over any footprints.” Astrobotic’s rover will stay outside the perimeter of Armstrong and Aldrin’s farthest travels, he says. Pictures of the lander will be taken from a “respectful distance” with a telephoto lens.

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