Carnegie Mellon to participate in Google Lunar X-Prize challenge

  • Pittsburgh (PA) – William Whittaker, researcher from Carnegie Mellon University is taking aim at Google's recently announced Lunar X-Prize and its $20 million grand prize. Whittaker has already has built a next-gen lunar rover for NASA, also announced today.


    The Lunar X-Prize apparently has found its first official entry with Carnegie Mellon, as Whittaker from the university's Robotics Institute said that he is assembling a team to compete for the grand prize. The Lunar X-Prize challenges engineers and entrepreneurs around the world to develop a low-cost robot that is capable of landing on the moon and accomplishing a few experiments.

    Whittaker has some unique experience in this field as he already has developed a new lunar rover for NASA. Called Scarab, the rover is not expected to leave the surface of the Earth, but rather serve as a demonstration platform for new technologies that may be required to "find concentrations of hydrogen, possibly water and other volatile chemicals on the moon that could be mined to produce fuel, water and air that are essential for supporting lunar outposts," according to statement from Carnegie Mellon.

    Much of Scarab is built around the thought to operate in a hostile environment as power efficient as possible. "A lunar prospector will face a hostile environment in the perpetual darkness of craters at the moon's southern pole, where ground temperatures are minus 385 degrees and no energy source is at hand," stated Whittaker. "It's a place where humans can't work effectively, but where Scarab will thrive, even while operating on the electrical power required to illuminate a 100-watt light bulb."

    The rover has been designed to be agile enough to travel miles over sandy and soil, but also serve as a stable drilling platform. Operating for months in total darkness, it cannot rely on solar energy or batteries for power. Instead uses a radioisotope source that places a premium on energy efficiency. When rolling over a sandy surface, Scarab isn't exactly what you would call quick. The rover travels at a maximum speed of four inches per second, which translates into 0.2 mph. However, it has interesting features that help it to reach its destination eventually. For example, the 5 1/2-foot-by-3-foot body can be lifted 21 inches above the ground to master obstacles. To navigate in total darkness, Scarab relies on new, low-power, laser-based sensors.

    Whittaker also highlighted a newly developed drill integrated into Scarab. It is built right into the middle of the rover – and not attached to an arm as in previous rovers. To achieve maximum power efficiency the rover can lower itself to the ground to generate a stable drilling platform and use its body weight to increase the efficiency of the drilling process.

    To optimize power efficiency, the robot must be as light as possible - but to operate the coring drill, the vehicle also has to be massive enough to apply sufficient downward pressure on the drill and counter the torque of the rotating drill, Carnegie Mellon noted. It is estimated that Scarab must weigh at least 250 kilograms, or about 550 pounds.

    "It's a good combination vehicle that does two things very well," said John Caruso, project manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "Scarab is successful because it achieves the design simplicity of a single-purpose machine while accomplishing the multiple purposes of driving and drilling in darkness."

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