Will universities become the platform for space research and exploration? Private companies? Or will NASA remain top dog? Will the Google Lunar X PRIZE change space exploration?
A robot is the iconic mechatronic system, and in my mind, a rocket, lander and rover destined for the moon are the ultimate mechatronic system. The craft would involve every facet of engineering, including particularly controls, fluids, thermodynamics, physics, mechanics, electronics, computers, communications, and of course trying to make everything work together — systems engineering and mechatronics. What a better place to find experts in all these varied fields than at the engineering department of a university?
I think the early favorite is Astrobotic Technology Inc., a partnership between Carnegie Mellon University, Raytheon Missile Systems, and other institutions, including the University of Arizona. The $20 million grand prize requires landing on the moon, sending various high-resolution photos, travelling 500 meters across the lunar surface and sending back high definition video.
Teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE must have 90% of their funds originating from private sources. Although this competition won’t change the paradigm of space exploration, I hope it will spur more private research and development, especially at the university level. This competition provides the drive for teams to create something spectacular on a potentially small budget in a relatively very short amount of time (by December 31, 2014). I think this will show other researchers, our government and universities that we have the technology and resources to get to the moon without a billion-dollar budget.
Out of the 10 teams listed on the Google Lunar X PRIZE team page, only one team, Astrobotic, includes colleges and universities into the development of the craft. Looking at University of Arizona’s track record with their Lunar and Planetary Lab (LPL), I could see this team getting something to the moon. The LPL already has a lander, Phoenix, slated to touch down on Mars in about 81 days, and a satellite, MESSENGER, which will be the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury due in 2011.
The mission of the X PRIZE Foundation is to “to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” They are creating pathways that could lead to a historical discovery and although an immediate discovery is possible, I think it’s remote. However, the foundation’s competitions are advancing varied fields that will benefit humanity — a breakthrough won’t occur without a solid research framework.
The most vital part of X PRIZEs is the push to innovate causes by the purposeful competition, deadline and large monetary award. There are tight, firm deadlines that compel groups of people, organizations and companies from across the globe that may normally not work on lunar landers and spacecrafts, to pool resources together — knowledge, money, time and otherwise — and invest in a project. Moreover, the results of the competition will hopefully cause a political, social, economic and technological change that will benefit humanity.
The lunar competition will start exposing the public to the idea that we need to research and travel to the moon and other planets: our species may depend on it. Moreover, I feel as technology advances, engineering will be (and likely already is) the most important part of any breakthrough for humanity. Because more and more fields require specialized structures, electronics and software, engineering education needs to to be the focus of higher education in the US.