Moon hackers invite rover designs from the public

Do you have a fabulous idea for a robotic rover suited for roaming the physically extreme plains of the Moon, but are just short of the millions of dollars required to send it into space? Here is your chance: put together your rover design proposal and submit it to Google Lunar X PRIZE contestant Team FREDNET.

The team – which uniquely conducts all its work under the same full-disclosure, Open Source terms that made software projects such as Linux and Firefox what they are today – is inviting members of the public to submit their best ideas for a rover that can be deployed onto the lunar surface and assist the team’s mission in meeting its objectives of driving hundreds of meters in the vast, otherworldly and unexplored fields of lunar soil – the so-called regolith – and sending live video of the trek back down to Earth, for everyone to enjoy, at the same time. The best ideas will be thoroughly tested and evaluated by Team FREDNET’s interdisciplinary and international team of volunteers, and eventually, one final design is to emerge from the submitted proposals, to hopefully one day be sent on a journey towards the Earth’s distant natural satellite by the team’s lunar transfer vehicle, also currently under development.

Wikipedia)

The intricate Soviet rover Lunokhod 2, which rolled through the lunar soil in 1973, is to date the last human artifact to have operated actively on the Moon. In 1993, twenty years after communications from the rover ceased due to a failure, ownership rights for Lunokhod 2 were purchased by computer gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott, making him the world's only private owner of an object on a celestial body. Garriott is also noted for visiting the orbiting International Space Station in October 2008 - at a time when several teams are competing in the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition to land the next privately owned spacecraft on a celestial body, but this time without the governmental backing that ensured Lunokhod's success. One of these teams, Team FREDNET, is already so far ahead in development that they were able to intercept image and voice communications transmitted from the ISS over the course of Garriott's visit. (Source: Wikipedia)

The coordination of Team FREDNET’s parallel rover development effort is informally led by Jörg Schnyder, an electrical and mechanical engineer from Switzerland, currently working at RWMS, a defense contractor based in Ochsenboden, Switzerland.

Schnyder is more than aware that the challenge of driving a robotic vehicle across the surface of the Moon is not an ordinary one, nor one that is easy. The lunar surface is covered in a thin veneer of dust prone to clinging to machinery, and wearing down motors and wheel systems by abrasion. And after 14 terrestrial days of being exposed to intense, burning hot sunlight under the weatherless sky during lunar day, anything left on the lunar surface suddenly falls prey to another 14 days of freezing cold darkness when lunar night sets in – big temperature swings putting all the materials and electronics making up a robotic system to the test. “The dust and the extreme temperatures are the biggest challenge for the rover,” Schnyder says, “but shock and vibration during start, flight and landing are also important,” he continues, referring to the extreme forces exerted upon a spacecraft when being lifted off the Earth by a heavy launch vehicle such as the Ariane 5 that the team intend to use, and when it thrusts through the subsequent stages to first gain enough momentum to leave the Earth’s strong gravitational grip, and since to all but negate it again, in order to finally land slowly and elegantly on the lunar surface.

Weighing in at nearly 800 tonnes – all of which will either burn up or be too damaged to recycle after just a single launch – a non-reusable Ariane 5 rocket is not cheap: one launch is estimated to cost some 180 million US dollars in total. For a small non-profit such as Team FREDNET, the only conceivable way of matching such a price tag is to leave as much room aboard the rocket as possible to other customers, and relying on them to pay most of the bill. For the team’s rover, this implies that the vehicle must be kept as light as possible – at the expense of conveniences such as big power supplies and heavy, throughly hardened structural materials.

Thus, Team FREDNET’s rover designers are faced with two wildly diametric requirements of, on the one hand, having to increase the mass of the vehicle to survive the harsh lunar environment, while on the other having to decrease it, to keep launch costs low enough to allow the team to land the rover on the surface of the Moon in first place. “The way to solve this challenge,” Schnyder muses, in homage to Albert Einstein, “is to design a rover as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Another challenge for the team is the software programs controlling the small rover as it rolls over the lunar surface. Due to the latency involved in communicating with the equivalent of a remote-controlled car, not in the backyard of your home, but on the surface of a celestial body hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, there is a need for the rover to be able to operate semi-autonomously, without relying on exact instructions from mission controllers back on Earth. Even if the few seconds it takes a command to reach the Moon is relatively little compared to the several minutes at play when space agencies communicate with spacecraft at Mars and beyond, the delay is still too long for mission controllers to be able to intervene in critical moments like if, for instance, the rover is about to drive off the rim of an unforeseen crater. In situations like this, or when radio communications with Earth, for whatever reason, are obscured altogether, the rover has to be able to take matters into its own hands and take the actions most appropriate to meet mission goals. The software – which likely will need to be based on some form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology – will be developed by the team’s software group in cooperation with the rover designers.

The small Jaluro rover is one example of a design currently under development by one of the groups in Team FREDNET.

The small, two-wheeled Jaluro rover is one example of a design currently under development by one of the groups within Team FREDNET. By keeping the number of components at a minimum, this design seeks to keep mass as low as conceivably possible. (Source: Tobias Krieger)

Jörg Schnyder invites everyone – members of the team and of the public alike – who think they may have an idea for a rover design that can help the mission meet its tough requirements, to join one of the existing rover development teams or create a project of their own and begin working. “If all of the teams are developing components that can be shared by the other ‘parallel developers’, and of course integrate components designed by the other teams, we can finally create a rover picking up the best of them”, Schnyder says, echoing the rationale behind the ‘bazaar’ development methodology driving popular Open Source projects such as Linux, the fastest evolving software project in the world. Concluding his invitation with a word of advice to any would-be Open Source lunar rover designers out there, Schnyder notes: “Existing components created for ‘earth-use’ mostly will fail in space, so as I said before: keep it simple, but think of the rough environment and stress the components have to withstand as well.”

Development of Team FREDNET’s rovers are conducted in the team’s online forum and wiki, where all team members have a chance to review the proposed designs, and share whatever insights they may have from their respective fields of knowledge. Once a good mass of proposals have been put forward, the team will test the most qualified candidate designs to evaluate which one to finally send to the Moon.

Schnyder hopes that the parallel development process will reach a point where each design will inspire and drive forward the others, but he also knows that, traditionally, Open Source hardware projects tend to be more challenging than their software counterparts. “The fact that hardware always has additional costs, and needs some special skills for production, could be the hardest thing to overcome,” Schnyder says. “I would like to integrate a construction kit such as Stokys in the development process, so the groups can create mock-ups without big investments, and so they can build their designs with own and shared components,” he continues.

Asked what the deadline for rover proposals will be, Schnyder says that there most likely won’t be one, opting instead to let the team evaluate the incoming rover designs continually, and adjust the mission parameters accordingly. “Just do something,” he urges prospective Team FREDNET rover designers. “Doing is always better than talking!”

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