Next Giant Leap pursues Google Lunar X Prize

Posted 10 Feb 2011 at 21:37 UTC (updated 10 Feb 2011 at 21:44 UTC) by mwaibel Share This

The Robots Podcast's John Payne sent a report on the Google Lunar X Prize team Next Giant Leap. It is planning something different from the rovers planned by most of the other teams, such as that led by Red Whittaker of CMU. Instead of rolling across the surface for the required 500 meters, they intend to hop over it, with a platform riding on four thrusters. Stabilizing such a device, so that it remains level throughout its flight and goes where it is supposed to, is no mean trick. Designing, on Earth, the technology to do so autonomously in the airless, low-gravity environment of the Moon is a challenge. The guidance, navigation, and control algorithms to accomplish these tasks are developed at Draper Laboratory and tested on a prototype named Talaris. Developed with the help of MIT students and under the watchful eye of Bobby Cohanim, Talaris uses ducted fans in an arrangement similar to a quadrotor to compensate for the difference in gravity between Earth and Moon. More information after the jump.

Created under the auspices of the X Prize Foundation, the Google Lunar X Prize, with a $20 Million grand prize to be awarded to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth (and another $10 Million to be distributed among second place, bonus prizes for achieving specific objectives, and the team which does the best job of promoting diversity in space), has attracted entries from twenty-five teams, of which twenty-one remain in the running, the most recent to join being Team Space IL.

One of the favorites in this competition, Next Giant Leap (NGL), founded by Michael Joyce (a former U.S. Air Force pilot and founder of B9Creations, makers of the Lost In Space robot replica), counts among its partners the Space Systems business area of Sierra Nevada Corporation, MIT's Space Systems Laboratory, The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc., Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, and The Center for Space Entrepreneurship (eSpace). NGL has recently received cash infusions from two of these partners, an undisclosed figure from eSpace and $1 Million Draper Laboratory, underlining their confidence in and continued commitment to the Next Giant Leap team, and helping to ensure the team's mission advances to liftoff as quickly as due caution allows; the competition being a sort of race.

The launch vehicle is to be a multistage rocket built upon a Falcon 1e booster. When the last of these stages is exhausted, the payload, NGL's lander/hopper, will still be above the lunar surface, faced with the task of negotiating the final approach and landing for itself, autonomously. Once safely on the moon, this lander/hopper will survey its surroundings, then lift off again and skim laterally above the lunar surface, before settling back down a second time. The number of times it can lift off, traverse, and re-land, and the distance it can travel, are limited only by the amount of fuel remaining after the initial landing. For the purpose of winning the Google Lunar X Prize, it is enough that it make a single hop of at least 500 meters, or several that total that distance, and, after having done so, that it transmit video, images, and other data back to Earth.

Perhaps the two trickiest aspects of this plan are the combination of sensory hardware and software which enable the identification and avoidance of hazards in choosing a landing spot, which Draper is working on, building upon knowledge and experience gained from previous landing programs like NASA's ALHAT (Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology), and the Guidance, Navigation, and Control algorithms mentioned above, also being developed at Draper Laboratory.

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