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Carnegie Mellon University has unveiled a four-wheeled moon rover that its creators hope will win the lion's share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize — and explore the moon's mysterious pits and caves in the process.
"We don't do anything just to win a prize. If we're on the moon anyway, we're going to do something while we're up there," William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics professor at CMU and director of the Field Robotics Center, said Monday in a news release.
Whittaker led the team that won the $2 million DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007 with a robo-car that could drive itself through an urban obstacle course. That demonstration helped blaze a trail for a new generation of autonomous road vehicles. Similarly, Whittaker hopes Andy will blaze a trail on the moon for Astrobotic Technology, one of 18 teams entered in the Lunar X Prize challenge.
The rover is called Andy, as a tribute to industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. This particular Andy represents Carnegie Mellon's contribution to the Astrobotic effort. "Every extraterrestrial robot carries some DNA from Carnegie Mellon, but Andy would be the first true CMU robot to make the leap from Earth," Whittaker said.
To win the $20 million grand prize in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, Andy would have to be launched to the moon, make a soft landing, travel at least 500 meters (a quarter of a mile) and send high-resolution video from the lunar surface. That all has to be done by the end of 2015. Astrobotic already has reserved a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for a moon trip to be launched no earlier than next October.
The exploration aspect is optional as far as the prize program is concerned — but that's likely to attract bonus interest from planetary scientists, potential customers and anyone who's considering the prospects for even more ambitious moon missions.
One possibility is to go prospecting for lunar ice, which could provide drinking water, oxygen and fuel for future explorers.
Other potential destinations include the steep-sided pits that have been seen in orbital images. Such voids were created long ago by the collapse of underlying material — think of them as sinkholes on the moon — and could conceivably serve as shelters for future settlers.
"These pits are astounding and unexplored; it will be like coming upon the Grand Canyon," Whittaker said. "Some pits might be entrances to caves. You can't explore caves from a satellite; you've got to be there, on the ground, so robots are the next step."