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CMU Robot to Visit the Moon

John Mann’s class project this semester will be sent to the moon next year.

The Carnegie Mellon University computer science student, along with about 30 other students, is taking part in a class called Mobile Robot Design that centers on constructing a moon rover named “Andy.”

Mann said the students are split into groups, each with a particular job.

“I primarily do software, particularly software related to driving Andy and getting and displaying information from Andy,” Mann said.

The students and faculty members built “Andy” for Astrobotic Technology, to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize.

But William “Red” Whittaker, CMU robotics professor, said just getting the rover to the moon is not enough to win.

“The XPrize doesn’t pay for landing and does pay for broadcasting video, but only after the rover goes 500 meters and demonstrates that it has done so,” Whittaker said.

That’s why the robot has two cameras, with a strong resemblance to eyes, and mapping technology.  These “eyes” are going to record a high-definition, panoramic and almost real time view of what Andy sees.

Whittaker said Andy, which measures about 3 ft x 3 ft, is being built to survive the rough lunar environment – which can reach temperatures as high as a baking oven and as cold as liquid nitrogen depending on the time of day.

“There’s an end to every planetary rover – some of them get stuck, some of them freeze, some of them cook, and some of them have trouble with the vacuum,” Whittaker said. “This rover is designed to do a great job with all of those.”

Winning is not the team’s only goal Whittaker said – they want to explore lunar pits, and one in particular that is the size of Heinz Field.

“Our ambition is to get to that hole, and that will be like coming upon the Grand Canyon, and then the robot making a detailed model for science and exploration,” he said. “And then possibly descending the ramp to get down into the hole and look around for caves.”

Mann agreed, saying Andy has the potential to lead to scientific discoveries.

“We believe these caverns could be of scientific interest – there might be water there, it might be a good place to put a colony in the next few decades,” Mann said. “So in addition to claiming the XPrize, which is certainly a motivation, we’re also doing it for science.”

The rover will be launched in 2015 from Cape Canaveral using a rocket about the size of a small SUV.