Carnegie Mellon entering newest space race

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A Carnegie Mellon University roboticist is assembling a team to land a robot on the moon to complete various tasks and win a $20 million prize.

"My hat is in the ring," said William "Red" Whittaker, the Fredkin Research Professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "We have spent decades building and testing robotic technologies for just this purpose."

Google and the X Prize Foundation are offering the prize to any company that can land a rocket on the moon and release a robotic rover onto the lunar surface to trek at least 1,312 feet and beam back to Earth self-portraits, panoramic views and real-time videos.

Whoever accomplishes the feat by the end of 2012 will receive the $20 million prize. If there is no winner bythen, the purse will drop to $15 million until the end of 2014, when the contest expires.

The winner can earn a $5 million bonus by producing images of Apollo or other man-made artifacts on the moon, driving for more than five kilometers across the lunar surface, surviving one night, or discovering water or ice.

A $5 million prize will go to a second company that completes the mission before the end of 2014.

Dr. Whittaker said he will establish the Carnegie Mellon team and find partners with experience in launching spacecraft and landing payloads. He also is seeking veterans of the full range of engineering challenges posed by lunar exploration.

Dr. Whittaker and his teams have developed robots to clean up nuclear accidents, travel through coal mines, race through deserts and, this fall, compete in an urban challenge.

Those projects will provide "solid experience" that will give him and his team a "tremendous advantage" in winning the Lunar X Prize, he said.

"We are also veterans of competitive technology challenges," he said. "These are the things we do, so combining lunar rovers with a competitive race to the moon is a great opportunity."

But he said the Lunar X Prize provides a challenge of a different focus and scale, including having a robot survive temperatures ranging from 200 degrees below zero to the boiling point of water.

"This challenge will be an incredible contribution to robotics and incredible contribution to lunar exploration and a model for technical challenges to come," he said.

Dr. Whittaker also heads Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing team that will compete this fall in the Urban Challenge -- a race of robotic vehicles through a city environment. The challenge is sponsored by the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Google Lunar X Prize is the second-richest space prize, next to the $50 million pot being offered by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow to any American team that can rocket a manned spacecraft into orbit by 2010.

The X Prize Foundation, which was founded in 1995, is also holding competitions in rapid genetic decoding and creating super-efficient vehicles, but the moon prize is by far the largest in its history. The foundation, based in Santa Monica, Calif., also offered the Ansare X Prize contest that led to the first manned private spaceflight in 2004.

Dr. Whittaker said Carnegie Mellon is thrilled by the challenge, which will bring advances to space exploration and robotics.

Winning the Google Lunar X Prize cannot be achieved "without major technological breakthroughs."

"There's no question that the Lunar X Prize will capture imaginations around the world," Dr. Whittaker said. "Regardless of who takes home the cash, this achievement will enrich us all."

The team's plan for winning the Google Lunar X Prize is explained at www.LunarRover.org.


The Associated Press contributed to this report. David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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