Carnegie Mellon Robot, Art Project To Land on Moon in 2021

Robotic Magazine

Carnegie Mellon Robot, Art Project To Land on Moon in 2021

June 6, 2019

CMU Becomes Space-Faring University With Payloads Aboard Astrobotic Lander

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie
Mellon University is going to the moon, sending a robotic rover and an
intricately designed arts package that will land in July 2021.

The
four-wheeled robot is being developed by a CMU team led by William
“Red” Whittaker, professor in the Robotics Institute. Equipped with
video cameras, it will be one of the first American rovers to explore
the moon’s surface. Although NASA landed the first humans on the moon
almost 50 years ago, the U.S. space agency has never launched a robotic
lunar rover.

The arts package, called MoonArk, is
the creation of Lowry Burgess, space artist and professor emeritus in
the CMU School of Art. The eight-ounce MoonArk has four elaborate
chambers that contain hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects,
mechanisms and earthly samples intertwined through complex narratives that blur the boundaries between worlds seen and unseen.

“Carnegie
Mellon is one of the world’s leaders in robotics. It’s natural that our
university would expand its technological footprint to another world,”
said J. Michael McQuade, CMU’s vice president of research. “We are
excited to expand our knowledge of the moon and develop lunar technology
that will assist NASA in its goal of landing astronauts on the lunar
surface by 2024.”

Both payloads will be delivered to the moon by a Peregrine lander, built and operated by Astrobotic Inc.,
a CMU spinoff company in Pittsburgh. NASA last week awarded a $79.5
million contract to Astrobotic to deliver 14 scientific payloads to the
lunar surface, making the July 2021 mission possible. CMU independently
negotiated with Astrobotic to hitch a ride on the lander’s first
mission.

“CMU
robots have been on land, on the sea, in the air, underwater and
underground,” said Whittaker, Fredkin University Research Professor and
director of the Field Robotics Center. “The next frontier is the high
frontier.”

For
more than 30 years at the Robotics Institute, Whittaker has led the
creation of a series of robots that developed technologies intended for
planetary rovers — robots with names such as Ambler, Nomad, Scarab and
Andy. And CMU software has helped NASA’s Mars rovers navigate on their
own. 

“We’re more than techies — we’re scholars of the moon,” Whittaker said.

The
CMU robot headed to the moon is modest in size and form; Whittaker
calls it “a shoebox with wheels.” It weighs only a little more than four
pounds, but it carries large ambitions. Whittaker sees it as the first
of a new family of robots that will make planetary robotics affordable
for universities and other private entities.

The
Soviet Union put large rovers on the moon fifty years ago, and China
has a robot on the far side of the moon now, but these were massive
programs affordable only by huge nations. The concept of CMU’s rover is
similar to that of CubeSats. These small, inexpensive satellites
revolutionized missions to Earth’s orbit two decades ago, enabling even
small research groups to launch experiments.

Miniaturization
is a big factor in affordability, Whittaker said. Whereas the Soviet
robots each weighed as much as a buffalo and China’s rover is the weight
of a panda bear, CMU’s rover weighs half as much as a house cat.

The
Astrobotic landing will be on the near side of the moon in the vicinity
of Lacus Mortis, or Lake of Death, which features a large pit the size
of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field that is of considerable scientific interest.
The rover will serve largely as a mobile video platform, providing the
first ground-level imagery of the site.

The
MoonArk has been assembled by an international team of professionals
within the arts, humanities, science and technology communities. Mark
Baskinger, associate professor in the CMU School of Design, is
co-leading the initiative with Lowry.

The
MoonArk team includes CMU students, faculty and alumni who worked with
external artists and professionals involved with emerging media, new and
ancient technologies, and hybrid processes. The team members hold
degrees and faculty appointments in design, engineering, architecture,
chemistry, poetry, music composition and visual art, among others. Their
efforts have been coordinated by the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative
Inquiry in CMU’s College of Fine Arts.

Baskinger calls
the ark and its contents a capsule of life on earth, meant to help
illustrate a vital part of the human existence: the arts.

“If this is the next step in space exploration, let’s put that exploration into the public consciousness,” he said. “Why not get people to look up and think about our spot in the universe, and think about where we are in the greater scheme of things?”

Carnegie Mellon University

5000 Forbes Ave.

Pittsburgh, PA 15213

412-268-2900

Fax: 412-268-6929

Contact: Byron Spice                                                                      

           412-268-9068                                                                       

           bspice@cs.cmu.edu

            Pam Wigley

            412-268-1047

            pwigley@andrew.cmu.edu

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Press release above was provided to us by Carnegie Mellon University

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