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Looking Back, Hopping Forward

Draper Laboratory showcases Google Lunar X-Prize project at Apollo celebration.

Artist conception of the Next Giant Leap lunar lander
competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize.
Credit: Next Giant Leap Team

Hand in hand with its 40th-anniversary Apollo barbecue, Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA, demonstrated a hazard-detection system for future lunar vehicles and showed off a mock-up of its collaborative project with MIT that will help land a small robotic vehicle on the moon.

Over 100 Apollo alumni attended the July 20th event, in addition to hundreds more current Draper employees. Those who spoke at the celebration shared stories of the technical challenges of Apollo and even brought along some toys–blocks of rope memory from the Apollo computer that would fit on a tiny microchip today. “Apollo was the highlight of my career,” said engineer John Miller. Many in the crowd–even those who were in their 20s in the Apollo heyday and who worked on several more projects–agreed.

Enthusiasm is something Séamus Tuohy, director of space systems at Draper, wants to cultivate in today’s young engineers. That’s why he’s excited about working with MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory on the prototype test bed for a lunar hopper. The hopper is a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize challenge, a robotic race to the moon with a $30 million prize purse. The robots must be privately funded, traverse at least 500 meters, and send a specific set of video images and data back to earth. The challenge demonstrates the potential for commercial lunar exploration (and earns $20 million for the winning team). MIT and Draper are involved in the project as part of Michael Joyce’s Next Giant Leap team, which was founded in 2007 and also includes commercial partners. A mock-up of the team’s lunar hopper was on display at Draper’s celebration, reminding attendees that there is more to the moon than past achievements.

“The thinking was that young people weren’t interested in space anymore,” says Tuohy. “But it turned out that what they were interested in was a challenge.” So MIT professors Jeffrey Hoffman and David Miller developed the Talaris project for graduate students. Students designed and built a vehicle that recreates lunar gravity by using downward-pointing fans to counter five-sixths of the vehicle’s weight. With that, they can test guidance, navigation, and control programs for the lunar lander here on Earth.

The concept of using a hopper, rather than a rover, for exploration solves some tricky problems, Tuohy explains. First, the design is small and inexpensive, while most planetary-landing projects ring in at over a billion dollars. And the hopper could dive into craters that are as deep as Mt. Everest is tall, which a rover wouldn’t be able to do. If it could get into those deep craters on the moon, Tuohy says, the hopper could touch ice that might be there and potentially prove once and for all that there is water on the moon. That in turn could help future explorers live off the land.

That’s all far in the future, and the prototype test bed is still in design and test phases, but it gets the young engineers going. The hope is that they won’t have to say, 40 years from now, that the coolest project they worked on was when they were in their 20s.

Go for liftoff: The Talaris vehicle is being tested at 50%, 65%, and 75% throttle, hovering at each level before increasing to the next thrust threshold. The test vehicle will be able to simulate the moon’s gravity by removing 5/6 of its own weight, which will help develop guidance, navigation and control algorithms for the Next Giant Leap team’s lunar hopper. Credit: Draper Laboratory

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