|Astrobotic Technology's "Red Rover" design concept picked by Popular Science as one of the 100 Best Innovations of 2011, their team entry in the contest to win the Google Lunar X-Prize [Astrobotic Technology, Inc.].|
William "Red" Whittaker is still shooting for the moon.But Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor and CEO of Astrobotic Technology Inc., says his team has pushed back its plans to land a robot on the moon by a year — to May 2015 — to tailor a robot suited to the expedition's new destination: the lunar south pole.
The CMU/Astrobotic team is competing to claim a portion of a multimillion-dollar prize for landing a robot on the moon. The team's new plan calls for a robot prospector to drill for ice samples at the moon's south pole to try to confirm the existence of water there, a possibility lunar orbiters and a lunar penetrator have strongly suggested in recent years.
"It is high-risk and high-return," Whittaker said.
His team is among 26, including one from Penn State University, that are competing to claim a portion of the Google Lunar X Prize, which will go to the first team to land a robot on the moon, make it travel 500 meters and transmit video to earth.
Prize organizers extended the deadline for the contest several times, most recently to December 2015.
The CMU/Astrobotic team built and tested its lunar lander. Last year Astrobotic signed a contract for a $60 million space shot with the privately owned Space X company. Along the way, the company picked up $610,000 in NASA contracts.
Astrobotic president David Gump said confirming water at the poles would be a major discovery that could point the way to the production of rocket fuel on the moon — water is a critical component — and the use of the moon as a fueling and launching point for further space exploration.
"The big question is: How can you do exploration at an affordable price? The key to that is being off-planet. If we can get propellant for a Mars trip on the moon, it will really make getting to Mars much cheaper," Gump said.
Going to the south pole of the moon means the trip can occur only during a one-month window when the cold, dark region has a small amount of light. Whittaker said the robot will have to be slightly larger and stronger than originally envisioned.
But he's excited about the possibilities inherent in a lunar polar mission.
"There is no more significant deliberate discovery that a robot can achieve in a near-term mission than to confirm the existence of ice at the poles of the moon. ... Given the life opportunity of a landing on the moon, why not make it count?" Whittaker said.