This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
The rover has gone blind. It had been running all night, its two mast-mounted cameras capturing high-resolution stereo images of its surroundings. Now it’s sitting idly in the middle of the room. Fixing the thing is not how Ross Finman had planned to start his day at the lab.
Finman, a 19-year-old undergraduate wearing wrinkled black trousers and an old brown leather jacket, uses a laptop to log on wirelessly to the rover’s computer. ”That’s weird,” he says, and tries to restart the cameras. Still no go. Definitely not a good day.
”Who touched it?” he says.
”I did,” a student nearby shouts back. ”That’s why it shouldn’t be broken.”
Finman summons Michael Furlong, a grad student and the camera wizard around here. Furlong pulls up a diagnostics screen on the laptop. Some log files had grown excessively large, eating up CPU cycles. He deletes the files and reboots the computer. Seconds later, the rover can see again.
”Mike is the man,” Finman says, grinning at Furlong, who doesn’t take his eyes off the screen.
It’s just another day at the Field Robotics Center, part of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, in Pittsburgh. Led by renowned roboticist William ”Red” Whittaker, the center has built robots for exploring ice fields, deserts, volcanoes, and coal mines. Now his team is designing a robot to go somewhere else entirely—a crater-scarred rock 380 000 kilometers from here. The moon.
Whittaker’s Astrobotic team is one of the competitors vying for the Google Lunar X Prize. The challenge, announced by Google and the X Prize Foundation in September 2007, will give US $20 million to the first privately funded team whose robot lands on the moon, travels 500 meters, and beams back photos and video. It all has to happen by 2012.
Hours after the announcement, Whittaker sent in the $10 000 registration fee. Within weeks he had mobilized some 60 researchers and students to develop the rover and also a lander to gently deposit it on lunar soil. He set up a company, Astrobotic Technology, to find ways of funding the project, which may cost much more than the prize. And he recruited two strategic partners: The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, in Tucson, which brings imaging and mission-planning expertise, and defense contractor Raytheon, which brings the precision-landing technology.