Astrobotic lander advances to all-composite design

If I were betting on this X Prize competition I would have to pick “Red” Whittaker’s team Astrobotic (the Carnegie Mellon University spinoff). They’ve been testing the third generation prototype of their Astrobotic Moon robot, Red Rover on a Pittsburgh slag heap. The cool photo above has obviously had Photoshop help with the background:-)

The Astrobotic lander has evolved to an all-composite design, with new locations to attach third-party payloads. The Payload Specifications document has been updated and can be downloaded here.

The all-composite design achieves gains in stiffness and reductions in mass. The added stiffness raises the frequency at which it resonates, so that lower-frequency vibrations from the launch vehicle won’t set up compounded shaking that would destroy the lander and rover. The mass required for the all-composite lander may be half that predicted for a metal or metal-composite hybrid. This savings is being booked as margin available to solve engineering issues, rather than as increased payload capability.

The lander will be constructed from just seven shapes, none of them larger than the walk-in oven the team is using to cure its composite parts.

And from today’s press release, more description of the Red Rover design and missions:

Astrobotic and CMU are now testing a prototype robot engineered to operate during extreme heat, and to survive lunar night. Soil temperatures at the lunar equator hit 224 degrees F at noon, cooking the rover from below as the Sun bakes it from above. The rover has a hot side with solar panels that it keeps pointed toward the Sun, and a cold side with a radiator that it keeps pointed at black sky. Cameras on top can turn 180 degrees so that operators on Earth can see the path ahead regardless of whether the rover is rolling forward away from the Sun or backward toward it. Lunar night is as cold as liquid nitrogen. Being able to survive lunar night extends the mission to another lunar day, and the Google competition pays a bonus for operating after enduring the night.

The rover weighs 160 lbs. and is about five feet tall. Its “Tranquility Trek” mission to the Apollo 11 site is expected to last 10-12 days, until sunset cuts off solar power and the rover hibernates at temperatures expected to go as low as minus 298 degrees F. The robot will awake for further exploration two weeks later when the Sun rises, unless the extreme cold has damaged the electronics.

Subsequent Astrobotic lunar expeditions will prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions. Astrobotic has just completed the first phase of a NASA contract to design lightweight robotic excavators that can remove the dry insulating soil that covers some of these valuable deposits.

Interview with Peter Diamandis

h+ Magazine has a short interview by Alex Lightman with X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. Most of the discussion is around Peter’s new project Singularity University. Web publishing of selected lecture videos sounds smart — it has worked well for TED:

h+: Is there a way that someone reading this article right now can get involved with SU?

PD: We’re going to allow people to participate online and view some of the lectures online, like TED does. And we’re going to encourage people to attend day and 10-day programs, as well as nine-week programs. The first nine-week graduate student program starts on June 27th, and runs through the end of August. And the first three-day and ten-day programs will take place probably in October.

Space Elevator challenge: NASA 2009 Power Beaming and Tether Challenges

NASA has announced the dates and terms for a key prize challenge.

SUMMARY: This notice is issued in accordance with 42 U.S.C. 2459f-1(d). The 2009 Power Beaming and Tether Challenges are now scheduled and teams that wish to compete may now register. The NASA Centennial Challenges Program is a program of prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in space exploration and ongoing NASA mission areas. The 2009 Power Beaming Challenge is a prize contest designed to promote the development of new power distribution technologies. The 2009 Tether Challenge is a prize contest designed to develop very strong tether material for use in various structural applications. The Spaceward Foundation is administering both Challenges for NASA.

The Skinny on Aptera: Top Aptera Execs Chat With EVCast

It seems there’s always a hunger among electric-vehicle enthusiasts for new information about the Aptera 2e, that composite-skinned energy sipper that looks like the future, where everyone’s wearing jumpsuits and has numbers as last names and crystals embedded in their palms that turn black on Lastday.

Unfortunately, the company tends not to be very talkative, so it’s those rare events where they go public that offer the most details. With their recent appearance on EVcast, they certainly didn’t disappoint. A transcript of the show follows.

Read on for some interesting updates — such as “The first production-intent vehicle was finished yesterday”.

Lunar Lander Challenge: interview with William Pomerantz

I missed this Oct, 2007 Pomerantz interview…

The big event at X Prize Cup 2007 is the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, in which DIY engineers try and fly their homemade rockets from one concrete pad to another, 100 meters away. NASA put up the $2 million in prize money, hoping they’ll get a sense of how a new generation of mooncraft might look. Instead of paying hundreds of millions to a giant corporation for paper plans, NASA, along with Northrop Grumman, is checking out the crowd-sourcing approach to space exploration. I spoke to William Pomerantz, the director of Space Projects for The X Prize Foundation and the man overseeing the competition.

Wired News: Give me a walk-through of the challenge.

William Pomerantz: It’s an annual competition for teams that can build a rocket that has the power required to go from lunar orbit to lunar surface and back. As you know, NASA said they’ll be going back to the moon, for human missions, and other governments have said they’ll do the same.

The Apollo LM (lunar module), which was built by the Grumman corporation and that did the job every time and did it perfectly, has been retired. They are all in museums. No one has tried to do that job again in the last 35 years. Right now there is not a spacecraft that can do the job.


A Google Competition, With a Robotic Moon Landing as a Goal

Google is offering $30 million in prizes for the first two teams to land a robotic rover on the moon and send images and other data back home.

For those who’ve not been following the Google Lunar X Prize, the NY Times has a bit of an update.

At Google’s headquarters here on Thursday, 10 teams from five countries announced their intention to participate in the competition. They include a team led by William L. Whitaker, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and renowned roboticist; an affiliation of four universities and two major aerospace companies in Italy; and one group that is a loose association of engineers coordinating their efforts online.

…Addressing the X Prize teams and journalists, Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, compared his company’s support of the competition with other companies’ sponsorship of yacht races. “The idea we can help spur the return to the moon and maybe even do it more quickly than some of the national plans is really exciting to me,” Mr. Brin said.

Google will pay $20 million to the first team that lands on the moon, sends a package of data back to Earth, then travels at least 500 meters and sends another data package. The second team to accomplish the goals will win $5 million. Bonuses are offered for feats like visiting a historic landing site and finding and detecting lunar ice, but the prize money starts to shrink if the mission is not accomplished by 2012.

Dr. Whitaker of Carnegie Mellon is leading a team that includes the University of Arizona and Raytheon, the military contractor. He said he planned to use kerosene and oxygen to fuel his rocket, and once it is on the moon, to send a rover to the site of the first moon landing in the Sea of Tranquillity. “Our extravaganza will be at Apollo 11,” he said.

One interesting comment at the event came from Harold Rosen — who clearly does not think the prospects for orbital solar power stations are good:

There was some discord at the event. A video produced by the X Prize Foundation, promoting reasons to revisit the moon, described the mining of silicon, which is abundant in the lunar soil. The video claimed that the material could be used in space to construct solar-powered satellites that would transmit cheap and abundant energy to Earth.

In a question-and-answer session, Dr. Harold A. Rosen, an inventor of the geostationary satellite who is heading his own X Prize team, called that claim “one of the most outrageous ideas I’ve ever heard.” He added: “I can think of about a hundred thousand more efficient ways of getting energy on Earth than that.”

William Pomerantz, Director, Space Projects at the X Prize Foundation did a short video covering the ten-team announcement. BTW, Pomerantz is the moderator of the Google Lunar X PRIZE Community Forums.

There was no mention of Team Cringely, Bob Cringely’s effort to compete for the prize on a fraction of, e.g., the Carnegie Mellon budget. I don’t know what to make of Bob’s project — when he first announced I thought it was wacky.

An efficient source for tracking developments of the Google Lunar X Prize and all the many other space prizes, try the Space Prizes Blog. And the SF Chronicle has a short first person report.

Santa Cruz software consultant Fred Bourgeois III represented the hacker-hippie element of the tech community with his Team FredNet. It will rely on the concept of “open source” engineering – that is, throwing ideas out to a community of interested participants who will be encouraged to trouble-shoot and improve designs offered by the core team.

“We intend to create a rover slightly larger than the typical cell phone,” Bourgeois said, adding that the team hopes eventually to deploy a network of these mini-rovers on asteroids to gather signals from deep space.

Moon 2.0: the Google Lunar X Prize

“…and this time we’re planning to stay!”

Moon 1.0 was abandoned 35 years ago in 1972. Don’t miss the very, very cool rollout video for Moon 2.0. The $30 million Google Lunar X Prize is the largest total science-prize so far announced [see below for partial listing]. The competition guidlines:

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.


So we now have another excellent test-bed for the power of science/technology prizes. Regular readers know we believe such prize competitions are hugely more effective than government-funded R&D. The success of the DARPA Grand Challenge and the Ansari X Prize provide anecdotal evidence of effectiveness. Over the next five years we should have more definitive evidence as we analyze the successes in relation to their public costs. Here’s a sampling of the announced competitions, some of which are multiple prizes:

• Google Lunar X Prize,
• Space Elevator Challenge
• DARPA Urban Challenge,
• Automotive X Prize,
• Lunar Lander Challenge,
• Archon X PRIZE for Genomics
• NASA’s Centennial Challenges

And Carnegie Mellon has already put their hat in the ring. Can Stanford’s AI Lab be far behind?