Carnegie Mellon University is gearing up for a four-wheeling lunar mission to explore newly discovered caves on the moon’s surface–along with pits and polar ice that scientists speculate may be the perfect shelter for future human inhabitants.
On Monday CMU rolled out its robot Andy for a test drive, a feisty all-terrain bot that takes its name from university namesakes Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. The rover is a key player in the effort led by Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology to win the Google Lunar XPrize, a race that pits scientists from around the world against one another in an effort to be the first to put a robot to the moon. The winner takes the $20 million-plus purse, which goes to the first team that lands on the moon, successfully drives a robot for at least 500 meters and transmits a “mooncast” back to Earth.
But Andy isn’t trolling the moon for dollars just to win money, says Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, founder and director of the Field Robotics Center at CMU. “After the heat is off, we’re going to do something while we’re up there. You can’t explore caves from a satellite–you’ve got to be there on the ground. We will be exploring greater questions. Where is the ice? What are these caves?” he says.
Whittaker, 63, has been dreaming of putting robots on the moon his entire life, although in his humility he points to the teamwork involving students, faculty, and staff at CMU who have plodded along together through the decades to make it happen.
Andy will be the first robot rover developed in the United States to land and explore the moon, following in the tracks of two Russian rovers and a more recent lackluster Chinese rover mission. The four-wheeler resembles a four-foot high Tonka toy, but don’t be deceived. Andy’s wide stance, low center of gravity, and high clearance give it superior agility, enabling it to get under and over “whatever the moon throws at it,” says Whittaker. Invisible technology is found in four “power-rich” computers on board that will collect data and record video that will relay back to a Earth and mission control, essentially a laptop run by the team at CMU.
The moon landing will be the spine-tingling part of the mission, says John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic. The CMU spinout is building the lander that will take the rover from the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the moon sometime in 2015, if all goes as planned. Astrobotic has been raising money for the venture by turning a profit with a payloads to the moon business, selling shipping space to scientists, artists, and a Japanese soft drink company. ($2 million gets a two-pound package to the moon.)
Astrobotic plans to land near one of the largest pits in the moon’s surface, an opening about the size of a football stadium. Scientists speculate that a large cave may exist beneath the pit opening, an area referred to as Lacus Mortis or “Lake of Death.”
Researchers believe the caves could one day serve to shelter human inhabitants since they offer relief from searing heat, freezing temperatures, and radiation from the sun, says Thornton. “The caves could be a future location where humans may settle on the surface of the moon. It’s the natural next step—it could be a stepping-stone to going (and living) on Mars.
“Now we need to convince the world that the caves are the place to go,” he adds.