Right now, twenty-six groups of scientists, engineers and students from around the world are competing to be the first non-government team to get a rover on the moon by 2015. In this month's issue of Scientific American, Michael Belfiore explores what the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition means for the future of private spaceflight and tells the story of one of the most impressive teams - team Astrobotic. In this Web Exclusive, take a behind-the-scenes look at Astrobotic's preparations for a trip to the moon.
Astrobotic's lunar rover is named Red Rover after team leader William "Red" Whittaker. The sides of the pyramidal robot are covered in solar panels, which would be less efficient without the surrounding white surfaces that radiate heat away from the panels.
Most of Red Rover's electronics are grouped on a removable panel, which makes them easier to access for testing and tinkering during development.
On the moon, the rover's battery and electronics must survive the frigid lunar night, during which fluids inside the hardware might freeze and rupture vital materials. In the lab, Whittaker and his teammates cool the hardware with liquid nitrogen and warm it to room temperature, simulating recovery after the lunar night.
Air thrusters control the tilt and spin of this moon-landing simulator. A camera analyzes the patterned square on the floor, which simulates craters and rocks on the moon, leveling and twirling the rover as appropriate.
Two teammates carry the rover to a designated start point from which it embarks on a successful 1000 meter journey. The rover need only travel 500 meters on the moon to claim the Google Lunar X-PRIZE.
The rover's wheels are designed for travel in slipper moon dust, over rocks and into craters - although large obstacles are ideally avoide.
Since the surface of the moon is so much larger than the size of a robot, the onboard computers must plan ahead. Long-distance navigation depends on more than the next step.