Google the Moon

Famed roboticist Red Whittaker may have the inside track to win the next moon race.

"It's a pretty wonderful thing to have something like the moon all to yourself with a robot for awhile," says William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. (Courtesy of

A robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, led by William "Red" Whittaker, announced its entry into the Google Lunar X Prize competition on September 13, 2007—the very day the contest opened. The goal: to land a rover on the moon within five years. "The challenge is so aligned with who we are and what we do that it was like meeting the perfect mate," says Whittaker.

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Among the foremost roboticists in the world, he’s fresh off the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, and, with NASA funding, to the Atacama Desert and into an active Alaskan volcano. Now he’s preparing to take his skills to the next level—or rather, to the next world.

To get the full $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, the team must land a rover by December 31, 2012. If nobody’s claimed the prize by then, the money drops to $15 million until December 31, 2014, at which point the contest will end unless Google and the X Prize Foundation decide to keep it going.

Besides landing, the rover must be able to travel at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile) and stream a "mooncast" of high-resolution video, still images, and other data back to Earth. A bonus $5 million will be awarded for extra tasks, such as driving the rover more than 5,000 meters (approximately three miles), returning pictures of man-made artifacts like the Apollo landers, or surviving the two-week lunar night.

Robots have advanced greatly since the Soviet Union John Connolly of NASA’s lunar lander project office, delivering a Sojourner-size rover to the moon, on a (ten times heavier) lander, won’t require an enormous rocket. "Some of the mid-size launchers like the Taurus, or some of the smaller international launch vehicles, would do the job," he says.

So far, Whittaker’s team is the only one to throw its hat in the ring, but a second contender, Isle of Man-based "Odyssey Moon," is planning to announce on December 6. Sarah Evans, vice president of communications at the X-Prize Foundation.

What’s in it for Google? Beside encouraging innovation in science and technology, there’s an element of self-interest. Dylan Casey, Google’s project manager for the Lunar X Prize, says, "Ultimately, the teams and fans of the competition will hopefully use Google products and Google search to learn about all the interesting technologies. One of the great side effects we’re hoping will result from this project is that the team that reaches the surface will upload their footage to YouTube so that children around the world can watch a moon landing. Everybody—not just the teams that are trying to accomplish the mission—has the ability to participate and interact. That’s the interesting element that the Internet brings to this whole competition."Air & Space associate editor Rebecca Maksel spoke with Whittaker about this second era of lunar exploration, which the X Prize Foundation has dubbed "Moon 2.0."

A&S: How did you and the team reach the decision to enter the Google Lunar X Prize competition?

Whittaker: It was love at first sight. There was no deliberation whatever. The challenge was so aligned with who we are and what we do that it was like meeting the perfect mate. We’re veterans of robotics adventures, and we have experience and aspiration for space robots—and that includes a commitment to lunar exploration before the moon was popular. Challenges suit us.

Any of these challenges are as much the victory of the alliance [with] sponsors and investors as they are the success of the team that is creating the machines and the software. Technical challenges will always be around. The classics are things like Lindbergh crossing the ocean—that was the Orteig Prize. It’s never really about the money. And the very good challenges really do change the world. It’s not just a technical curiosity; they all open up vistas in business.

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