Shooting The Moon From The Sunshine State

Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University have just completed their lunar landing craft, which is in the running to fly to the moon with its Red Rover camera robot in April 2014. It is being tested in El Segundo, California for its ability to successfully complete the mission. The titanium and aluminum craft weighs in at a half-ton. It is now undergoing a “shake test” to determine if it is structurally sound enough to ride atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If it passes and beats its competition, then Astrobotic will claim a 36 million dollar reward with the combined awards of the Google Lunar X Prize, a Florida launch bonus, and a NASA landing contract. The Google Lunar X Prize offers a 30 million dollar reward for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the Moon. In order to win, contestants must successfully transmit video and information about the Moon back to Earth. The robot must also travel at least 500 meters on the Moon’s surface.

Despite this hefty prize, Astrobotic CEO William Whittaker says the lunar landing construction is not about the money. Sending a robot to the moon has apparently been a childhood dream for Whittaker for some time. He claims that the true prize is greater lunar exploration, although “when somebody gives you a $20 million check, you cash it,” he says. The plan is to send images back to Earth, using high-definition, 3-D cameras. President of Astrobotic, David Gump says, “People will be able to see the surface of the moon as clearly as an Apollo astronaut.” This trip will make details of our nearby moon available to all people, which was once only able to be experienced by trained astronauts. Whittaker hopes to use this initial design for future moon missions as well. This particular lander will be equipped with four fuel tanks, rechargeable batteries, and solar panels that can provide up to 500 watts of power from daylight.

A total of 29 teams are currently vying for a chance to win the Google prize. The prize is meant to encourage public participation as well as commercial support of space exploration. The project is reminiscent of the Ansari X Prize, which was won in 2004 when a non-government organization was the first to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice in two weeks. Both competitions are aimed to inspire private investment in developing new, cost-effective space exploration technologies and materials. Google Lunar X represents the largest international incentive prize of all time. The teams need to be at least 90% privately funded. A second place prize and bonus prizes are available in addition to the 30 million dollar first place award. Team registration ended on December 31, 2010, which leaves just 29 teams in the running for the competition. All other teams are still in the development process of their spacecrafts.

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