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Building robots, destination Moon

At a time when scientists are turning towards private funding for space missions, comes the Google Lunar X PRIZE, igniti

Published: 21st April 2012 01:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 07:40 PM   |  A+A-

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The excitement with the lunar missions waned by the mid-70s except for occasional successful missions like the Chandrayaan, which was a major boost for the country. At a time when scientists are turning towards private funding for space missions, comes the Google Lunar X PRIZE, igniting a new era of lunar exploration by offering the largest international incentive prize of all time.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE competition offers $ 20 million to the first non-governmental team to get a rover on the moon. A total of $ 30 million in prizes is available to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 metres over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth. As many as 26 teams are now working on building robots, which they have to complete latest by 2015.

Odyssey Moon was the first team to register for the X PRIZE that was launched in 2010. The technology for their lunar rover comes from  NASA. The White Label Space’s rover has specially designed wheels so as not to slip on the moon’s dusty surface. Synergy Moon has a spherical rover that will survey the moon with twin cameras.

Even India has put up a team on the list of 26, called Team Indus. The team seeks to represent the aspirations of one of the world’s oldest civilizations and youngest population. Headquartered in New Delhi, its members are professionals with Technology, Science, Finance and Media background.

However, nothing is known about the design of their moon rover. The popular science magazine ‘Scientific American’, in its April 2012 issue, has predicted that out of the 26 competitors, Astrobiotic stands the best chance of winning with a team leader in William Whittaker who has spent his entire career building innovative robots. Astrobiotic’s moon rover, apart from doing all that it is expected to do, will also send e-mail, tweet and make Facebook posts!

‘Scientific American’ says that few people are as qualified to get a robot on the moon as Whittaker. "In the 1980s, he designed and built the robots that explored damaged and dangerously radioactive areas of the partially melted-down Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. He has created robots that hunt meteorites in the ice fields of Antarctica and robots that climb into the craters of active volcanoes in Alaska and Antarctica,’’ says the magazine.

Whittaker’s team is expecting strong competition from other X PRIZE participants such as the Moon Express that has the backing of billionaire Naveen Jain and other wealthy individual investors. The other one is the Next Giant Leap, which has teamed up with Drapper Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which designed the guidance, navigation and control systems that shepherded the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Some of the other teams in the fray include Team Italia, Frednet Area, Moon Express, Stellar, Omega Envoy, Euroluna, Jurban, Independence-X, Selenokhod, Barcelona Moon team, Space Pioneers, Team Puli, Rocket City, Mystical Moon and Angelicum, among others.

A second place prize of $5 million and a $4 million in bonus prizes are for achieving other specific mission objectives, including operation at night; travelling more than 5 km over the lunar surface; detection of water; and precision landing near an Apollo site or other lunar sites of interest such as landing/crash sites of man-made space hardware. Lastly, a $1 million award will go to the team that demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration.

‘Scientific American’ says that perhaps the most enduring benefit of the X PRIZE will be to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, across the world.

(Sci-bug takes you across the world, from test-tubes and petri-dishes to the farthest corners of the planet and beyond, wherever science makes interesting findings. Keep track of the bug, every Saturday. And do not forget to give us a feedback on cityexpresstvm@newindianexpress.com)



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