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Intelligent Machines

Boldly Going Back

An unmanned lunar rover could be the next to roam the moon.

As early as next year, Red Rover, a prototype robotic vehicle being built at Carnegie Mellon University, may be sending back stunning images and video from the moon. William Whittaker, the CMU professor whose driverless SUV triumphed on a course of urban and suburban roads in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge last year, is using the same technologies in the one-meter-wide moon-bot (left, at a CMU test site).

Moonbot: Red Rover (above) is a prototype robotic vehicle being built at Carnegie Mellon University.

The CMU team is an early entrant in a contest funded by Google and administered by the X Prize Foundation; $20 million will go to the first privately funded team whose rover reaches the moon, travels 500 meters, and returns images and data to Earth. Whittaker has formed a company, Astrobotic Technology, and is working with Raytheon and the University of Arizona on precision landing technologies. Nine other teams are also readying entries; X Prize estimates that their efforts could cost between $15 million and $100 million each. Despite the expense–and the competition–Whittaker is confident. “We have superior software for things like position estimation, route planning, and perception to sense the terrain,” he boasts. But he did not elaborate on where his team will get funding.

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A Robot’s Giant Leap
Red Rover’s planned 2009 mission

1. A conventional two-stage solid rocket will launch a lunar lander containing Red Rover on its five-day trip to the moon.

2. The lander’s computer-vision system will lock on to lunar landmarks and guide the spacecraft to a soft landing.

3. The lander will touch down near the site of the historic July 20, 1969, manned Apollo landing.

4. Red Rover will detach an antenna and point it toward Earth to enable data transmission to Earth stations.

5. Red Rover will navigate the terrain, avoiding obstacles as it follows a course plotted by controllers on Earth. If it runs into trouble, the controllers can take over, piloting it remotely.

6. To be eligible for a $20 million prize, Red Rover must travel 500 meters, stopping twice to transmit high-­resolution 360º photographs, normal and high-resolution videos, and self-portraits.

7. For additional prize money, the rover may drive five kilometers, search for and take pictures of old Apollo hardware, look for ice, and attempt to survive one frigid lunar night, which lasts 14.5 Earth days.

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