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Google lunar contest: Pittsburgh team unveils rover

Tribune-Review
| Monday, November 24, 2014 5:48 p.m
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
John Mann (far left), who designed the user control interface for 'Andy,' runs the lunar rover through its paces at Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center. The robot was built for the Google Lunar XPrize competition. Its builders showed off the technology Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at the university in Oakland.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
William 'Red' Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University professor and director of the Field Robotics Center, shows off 'Andy,' a lunar rover built for the Google Lunar XPrize competition Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at the university in Oakland.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon University professor and director of the Field Robotics Center William 'Red' Whittaker unveils 'Andy' a lunar rover built for the Google Lunar XPrize competition Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at the university in Oakland.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon University professor and director of the Field Robotics Center William 'Red' Whittaker speaks during a press event to announce 'Andy,' a lunar rover built for the Google Lunar XPrize competition Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at the university in Oakland.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
John Mann, who designed the user control interface for 'Andy,' runs the lunar rover through its paces at the Field Robotics Center. The robot was built for the Google Lunar XPrize competition. CMU engineers provided the demonstration Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at the university in Oakland.

A team of Pittsburgh scientists Monday showed off a lunar rover they hope will win them $20 million in Google’s international space race.

Andy, a four-wheel, 55-pound, moon-trotting robot, is the Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon University team entry in Google’s Lunar XPrize , a contest intended to promote privately funded moon exploration.

The rules are straightforward: Before the end of 2015, get a rover to the moon, have it travel about one-third of a mile and make sure everyone on Earth can view its progress.

Eighteen teams worldwide are vying for the prize, including the CMU-Astrobotic team and a student-led team from Penn State University whose rover, the Lunar Lion, had a successful firing of its peroxide-based engine .

“These rovers are our eyes and our ears into places some of us will never go,” said William “Red” Whittaker, team leader and a Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics. “(Andy) can handle anything the moon throws at it.”

The moon will throw a lot at the little rover, said Whittaker, who for nine months has worked with Astrobotic Chief Technical Officer Kevin Peterson and a group of students to build Andy.

The moon has no atmosphere, so the rover must be able to handle oven-like heat and extreme cold. It exists in a vacuum. The surface is covered in dust much like the sand on fine sandpaper, Whittaker said. Its surface is rocky and dotted with craters.

One of the biggest challenges, Whittaker said, is keeping the rover from tipping over in the moon’s low-gravity environment. China’s 2014 lunar rover effort, Jade Rabbit, has been hampered by mechanical issues.

“A lot of our effort is going into proving everything will work,” said Peterson, the Astrobotic executive.

Andy has a flexible axle, small computers that receive signals from the machine’s operator and larger computers that direct those signals to turn its wheels forward and backward. Andy has a solar panel that can function at higher efficiency than those on Earth. A few feet off the ground are two cameras that give the rover the appearance of having eyes, giving it a look similar to Wall-E, the Pixar movie robot.

The cameras make it easier for the operator, who runs the rover from a website, to spot obstacles. Andy is named for industrialist Andrew Carnegie and banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon.

Much of the testing has happened in Pittsburgh, where Andy practiced crawling over slag heaps, Whittaker said. Some testing will happen next year in the Mojave Desert, Peterson said, where Astrobotic will practice flying and using the landing module.

Even if they lose the Google race, Whittaker said Andy could conduct other lunar research. The rover will sleep at night, which on the moon lasts for two weeks, and work during the day.

“It’s this huge adventure,” Peterson said.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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