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September 2007
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September 13, 2007

To The Moon!

Filed under: Commentary,Robots,Space Exploration — Bob @ 7:45 pm

Today Google and the X Prize Foundation revealed their latest challenge: a potential $20 million (and up to $30 million including the bonus challenges) for landing a robot on the moon, roam around a little bit, and send back some video.

Hmmm. Sounds very interesting and is likely a very difficult problem. My first thoughts about the challenge:

  • Roaming around on the surface of the moon will be very dusty, thus any exposed gears or moving parts will be gunked up in about 10 seconds
  • I have no idea what vacuum does to gear motors, electronics, etc. but you gotta believe it will be different than roaming around in my living room
  • Landing on the moon is very challenging; many of the early Russian and US probes crashed
  • Soft-landing is hard because there isn’t any atmosphere for parachutes, but air bags might help (I don’t know if anyone has tried this though, I believe rockets are the conventional approach to control descent velocity)
  • Sending back good quality video probably isn’t terribly difficult but having a camera that operates after a rough landing and operating in vacuum might be; I have no idea how difficult the antenna aiming would be but I’d expect you could rent time on some serious radio telescopes here on Earth to receive the stream once it was directed in the right direction
  • I recall the Russians succeeded in landing a tele-operated rover Lunokhod 1 back in 1970 but likely cost way more than $30 million
  • The Lunokhod probes were very successful and not a bad model for this challenge
  • Lifting a robot to outer space and on to the moon is really difficult – just to get to orbit requires accelerating to greater than 8,000 meters per second – and I imagine efficient navigation to the moon is quite delicate too
  • There is a lot of information available about potential landing sites but to really maximize the prize money you’d have to land near something else (like a NASA Lunar Module or Lunokhod 1)
  • It is probably worthwhile to budget for multiple attempts, especially in terms of that soft landing

I’m am really excited about this contest. I doubt I have a chance to participate but you can believe I’m going to follow whomever does make the attempt.

What do you think about this contest? How would you solve some of these problems?

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