Penn State, CMU teams shoot for moon in Google challenge
If competitors in a multi-million dollar space race successfully land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, it will be a giant leap for private space exploration, and Pennsylvania students could be at the helm of mission control.
Of 18 teams competing across the globe for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, four are American groups, including two Pennsylvania delegations.
A team of students from Penn State University is working to launch “Lunar Lion,” the contest's only fully university-led team.
Meanwhile, a group of Carnegie Mellon University students is working alongside the Strip District-based company Astrobotic to launch a robot that could explore a never-before-seen lunar cave.
Both teams visited the Carnegie Science Center this month to publicly tout their plans. If either successfully charts the 250,000-mile odyssey to the moon, they'd be the first private entity to land there.
Web giant Google started the Lunar XPRIZE to spur development of technology that would benefit the world, said Alexandra Hall, senior director for the competition. It offers up to $40 million to successful teams, the largest incentive prize ever.
To win, a team's robot must land on the moon's surface, move 500 meters and send video and images to the Earth by the end of 2015. And it must be 90 percent privately funded.
“Though this is a robot, not a person, it's still pretty significant,” Hall said.
Leaders for both teams acknowledge that the private sector space industry is growing as federal funding for exploration has flat-lined. Space hardware is better and cheaper than ever before — up to 10 times less costly for some elements.
Penn State's $20 million Lunar Lion would operate for about eight days on the moon's surface and remain there as a “time capsule,” said Michael Paul, director of space systems initiatives at the university. He described the lander as a “small spacecraft” — low to the ground, 4 feet in diameter and 2 feet high.
Lunar Lion is in tune with what the land grant research institution “has always done,” just more “audacious,” Paul said.
“The idea that a university is going to lead its own mission — that's a completely new idea,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity for Penn State to be doing research ... to be plowing a new field, making Penn State the go-to university for students who want to be engaged in the space sector.”
The team includes about 80 to 100 people, ranging from aerospace engineering students to business-savvy MBAs to theater majors who will build a scale model of the device.
It's accessible as well to younger students, such as Kara Morgan, a 19-year-old sophomore from Wexford, who had never taken an aerospace class but jumped into the project. An aerospace engineering major, she works at the spacecraft's propulsion site.
Liam Neigh, 19, a freshman from Penn Township in Butler County, said he immediately “realized the gravity — pun intended — of that team” when he arrived at Penn State.
“This is history. This is going to change the world, and I'm going to be a part of it,” said Neigh, the team's social media coordinator.
Penn State is relying partially on crowd-funding. Supporters who donate $100 can etch a 140-character message — such as song lyrics or Tweets — onto gold foil that will be placed aboard Lunar Lion.
Because the Penn State team will fund its spacecraft with donations — $2.5 million so far — the prize money would be used to endow a research center on campus.
The Astrobotic-Carnegie Mellon team would reinvest the prize money in the company, CEO John Thornton said.
On Thornton's team are 14 full-time Astrobotic staffers and about 30 students at Carnegie Mellon, who range from undergraduate to doctoral students.
He wants to win the XPRIZE by 2015 and dig for water on the surface of the moon by 2018.
All the while, Thornton hopes to build a business carrying robotic “payloads” to space — “think of us like FedEx or UPS to the moon.”
Payloads, along with investments and sponsorships, are poised to fund the mission. The total cost is not being made public.
Their first destination: “Lacus Mortis,” or Lake of Death, a sinkhole suspected to lead to a lunar cave. The oval pit measures the width of Heinz Field and the depth of the Statue of Liberty, said William “Red” Whittaker, a CMU professor leading the charge.
A wall has collapsed at Lacus Mortis, forming a natural entrance. A lunar cave network could provide protection from the sun's radiation and thermal extremes, perhaps allowing a sustained mission on the moon for years.
“Being underground could be a really compelling, interesting place for future astronauts,” Thornton said.
Paul and Thornton are dogged and confident competitors, but Hall acknowledges it's a tremendous challenge.
“It's a tough thing. The moon itself is a very harsh environment — extremes of temperatures, very very cold, very very hot. A lot of radiation,” she said. “The lunar dust is extremely fine. It gets into everything.”
When Google launched the Lunar XPRIZE in 2007, 30 teams entered, a number that has dwindled to about half.
A team could make a successful launch but fail to land. Or a robot may land but not move. Or it might get stuck.
“It's more likely that there will be some glitch,” Hall said.
But the payoff and impact could be even bigger than millions of dollars.
The moon is chock full of raw materials, and it could hold water or even the potential for a future workforce, she said.
Leaving space in the hands of governments means funding decisions could be subject “to the whims of politics,” she said.
“The only way to truly be independent of nations and be independent of that kind of level of politics is to do this privately,” Hall said, though governments may still be involved.
“We have the opportunity to make the moon personal to people,” she said. “It really is a new frontier. It's about pushing the boundaries.”
Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.