On a muddy, rubble-strewn field on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, a five-foot-tall pyramidal robot with twin camera eyes slowly rotates on four metal wheels, its electric motors emitting a low whine. In a nearby trailer, students from Carnegie Mellon University huddle around a laptop to watch the world through the robot’s eyes. In the low-resolution grayscale images on the laptop’s screen, the rutted landscape looks a lot like the moon, which is the robot’s ultimate destination.
Carnegie Mellon robotics professor William “Red” Whittaker and his students built Red Rover to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a competition designed to boost the role of private companies in space and inspire innovation in spaceflight technology. The winning prize is $20 million, which will go to the first nongovernment team that lands a robot on the moon, gets the robot to travel half a mile or so, and sends high-definition video back to Earth—all by the end of 2015. A second-place prize of $5 million, along with bonuses for other achievements such as reaching the site of an Apollo landing, brings the total purse to $30 million. Although 26 teams are competing, Whittaker’s team is a clear leader. His firm, Astrobotic Technology, was the first team to make a down payment on a rocket that will carry its spacecraft and rover to the moon. Whittaker has also proved himself to be a champion builder of autonomous vehicles that can navigate extreme environments.