WASHINGTON — William “Red” Whittaker and the wizards at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, hope to use their expertise to snag the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize.

Carnegie Mellon is one of seven teams so far to have sent in a letter of intent and a $1,000 deposit to compete for the $20 million grand prize, according to Brett Alexander, the X Prize Foundation’s executive director of space prizes and the Wirefly X Prize Cup.

The Google Lunar X Prize is offering $20 million to the first team to soft land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, travel a minimum of 500 meters and transmit high-definition video back to Earth for viewing over the Internet. Up to $5 million in bonus money can be won by completing tasks beyond the core mission. Second place is worth $5 million.

David Gump, president of Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space) and an advisor to Whittaker’s Team X-PLORE, said the team wasted no time registering for the competition, sending in its letter of intent via overnight delivery the day it was announced. Gump said the team since has translated the contest guidelines into 50 “expressed or implied” mission requirements.

“We are already making great progress coming up with a mission design that will win the prize,” Gump said in a Sept. 24 interview.

Neither Gump nor Whittaker are strangers to planning lunar missions meant to be done on the cheap. Gump spent most of the 1990s running LunaCorp, a small firm that left no stone unturned in searching for the right combination of corporate and government sponsorships to get a profit-driven lunar lander mission off the ground.

LunaCorp eventually signed RadioShack as a sponsor and helped the electronics retailer pull off a number of space-based promotions before Gump folded the company in 2003 to focus on the space transportation company t/Space.

Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, meanwhile, not only worked closely with LunaCorp on mission studies, but also submitted multiple Discovery-class mission proposals to NASA in the 1990s for robotic lunar landers and rovers designed to explore the craters and polar regions of the Moon.

NASA passed on those proposals, in part because the agency was not especially interested at that time in exploring the Moon. But Carnegie Mellon-built robots have been put through their paces in a variety of environments here on Earth, including meteorite-hunting expeditions in Antarctica. Whittaker and the engineers at his institute also contributed software to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, which have been exploring the red planet since 2003.

Whittaker said that Carnegie Mellon is ready to meet the Google Lunar X Prize challenge head on.

“Carnegie Mellon is a world leader in software and world leader in robotics and we have experience with and appetite for challenges,” Whittaker said in a Sept. 26 interview.

In 2005, a pair of driverless automobiles designed by Carnegie Mellon completed a 212.4-kilometer trek through the Nevada desert, taking second and third place in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Grand Challenge.

On Nov. 3, Carnegie Mellon will compete in DARPA’s $2 million Urban Challenge, entering a driverless Chevy Tahoe sport utility vehicle, dubbed Boss, that will attempt to autonomously navigate a closed 96-kilometer course in Victorville, Calif., complete with stop lights, speed limits and traffic.

Neither Whittaker nor Gump would say much about Team X-PLORE’s technical approach at this early stage, and Gump said that is unlikely to change even as the approach matures.

“You have to remember that this is a race with competitors that shouldn’t know about your strategy,” Gump said.

But both Whittaker and Gump said they believed securing early financing, either in the form of corporate sponsorship or a benevolent angel, is critical.

“What is clear from the Ansari X Prize is that you need to have solid funding soon – a Paul Allen equivalent who can make sure that you are motoring away at a good speed,” Gump said. “One of our team’s top priorities is securing that early funding.”

Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, bankrolled the $20 million development of Scaled Composites’ piloted SpaceShipOne suborbital launch system, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by completing two back-to-back flights to the edge of space.

Whittaker said the real trick of challenges like the Google Lunar X Prize is coming up with an approach that ensures that all stakeholders win, even if the cash prize exceeds the team’s grasp. Win or lose at the Urban Challenge next month, Whittaker said, Carnegie Mellon’s teammates and sponsors will see a return on their investments.

“If a team were backed by $400 million of philanthropic money on Day 1, the technical and programmatic challenges for X Prize success would be foregone. There would be no difficulty,” Whittaker said. “You can buy victory, but not profitably.”

The key to profitability, according to Whittaker, is making sure that there are a series of payoff opportunities for sponsors along the way to the actual competition. Auctioning off naming rights and holding contests to select people who will actually get to drive the rover once it lands were among the examples he and Gump mentioned.
Similar pitches were made to would-be corporate sponsors during Gump and Whittaker’s LunaCorp days. But Gump said there are some big differences between what LunaCorp tried back then and what Team X-PLORE is facing today, not the least of which is the involvement of Google, the Internet powerhouse worth more than $170 billion.

“Two great things that Google did is they put the Google stamp of credibility on the overall enterprise and they also set the target to be relatively fixed and small effort,” Gump said.

“The Google threshold for wining the prize is pretty constrained. You have to land and make a broadcast, move 500 meters and broadcast again. This means you don’t have to broadcast while moving which is very difficult. It means you don’t have to last on the surface for longer than it takes to move 500 meters and you don’t have to take along tens of kilograms of science instruments.”

But the technical challenges still are formidable. Whittaker and Gump said building a lander that is capable of making a soft touchdown on the lunar surface is probably the biggest single expense ahead for any team. Launch is not cheap either, with prices starting around $6 million for Space Exploration Technologies’ still unproven Falcon 1 launcher and going up from there.

Broadcasting at least 1 gigabyte of high-definition quality video back from the Moon is no mean feat either.

“That’s the most stressing requirement in the list,” said Gump, noting that he knows of no space-qualified high-definition (HD) video camera. Japanese broadcaster NHK and Silver Springs, Md.-based Discovery Communications got together in 2006 for the first live HD broadcast from space. But even in the relatively benign radiation environment aboard the international space station, “many, many pixels were being knocked out by radiation damage” within a matter of days, Gump said.

Travel time to the Moon ranges from several days to a month, depending on the technical approach.

“We haven’t gone to Mike Malin yet to ask him what he might charge us for a Mars-qualified camera but you certainly cannot walk down to Best Buy and get an HD camera that can survive the radiation environment,” Gump said.

San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems has built numerous cameras for NASA Mars missions and currently is working on a video camera for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft. That video camera will be capable of 720 lines of progressively scanned vertical display resolution – a common HD video standard known as 720p.

Mike Ravine, advanced projects manager at Malin, said it is not a given that the camera being designed for the Mars Science Lab (MSL) would work as is on a lunar mission. “I can imagine a mission where with the overall package it would make sense to build a copy of the MSL camera, but I can also imagine a number of mission approaches were it would not make sense,” he said.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...