Winston-Salem native part of robot project with $25 million prize on the line


John Mann Jr. is part of a project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to create a robot that will be sent to the moon in 2015. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — John Mann Jr.’s class project will merit more than an A-plus, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Not only does his project — a lunar robot — have a round-trip ticket to space for 2015, but it also is expected to win $20 million.

Mann, a Winston-Salem native, is one of 50 contributors to the robot, which will be able to traverse the moon’s pits, caves and polar ice to stream a live video back to Earth.

“This will really be our first movie-theater quality look at the moon’s surface,” said Mann, a junior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It’s a step toward further space exploration, and the prize money is another motivating factor.”

The project is a part of the Mobile Robot Design course at Carnegie Mellon and the Google Lunar X Prize competition.

But getting the robot — named Andy after university namesakes Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon — to the moon isn’t enough to win the $20 million Google prize.

The robot must land safely on the moon, move 500 meters on the moon’s surface and send back a 10-15 minute video to win the grand prize. The project, developed with no more than 10 percent government financing, must be completed before Dec. 31, 2015.

“The most intriguing part is that this is mostly a student project,” Mann said. “If I had to guesstimate, I’d say 25 percent are professors and the rest are students.”

Mann volunteered to work on the project in the spring semester and took the Mobile Robot Design course this fall under Red Whittaker, the head of the project.

Students in Whittaker’s course are divided into groups, each with a particular job that is tailored to their strengths.

Mann, a computer science major, writes the software that will help control the robot and analyze the information obtained.

“I’ve always been interested in space exploration, astronomy and robotics, so this project just seemed like natural fusion of all these interests,” said Mann, a 2012 graduate of Forsyth Country Day School. “When I was little, I envisioned being an engineer, but I never thought I’d be working on this project right now.”

Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute previously has developed planetary robotic technologies for NASA, including walking robots for exploring active volcanoes and robots designed for extraterrestrial drilling.

“It’s exciting that students are such a big part of this project, and I’m just excited to become a part of history,” Mann said.

The Luna 2, a space probe launched by the Soviet Union in 1959, was the first unmanned spacecraft to successfully reach the surface of the moon.

In 1969, NASA’s Project Apollo was the first to successfully land humans on the moon. Scientific instruments were placed on the moon’s surface and lunar samples were returned to Earth.

But this will be the first American rover to land on the moon’s surface, Mann said.

“The Chinese and the Soviets have sent rovers to the lunar surface, but never the U.S.,” Mann said. “This is going to revolutionize what we know about the moon.”

This will also be the first privately financed mission to the moon, he said. The project is being financed by Astrobotic Technology, a privately held American company based in Pittsburgh that works to develop space robotics for planetary missions. The company was founded in 2008 by Carnegie Mellon’s Whittaker and his associates, with the goal of winning the Google Lunar X Prize. The company has reserved a launch in Cape Canaveral for October 2015.

“It’s going to be so surreal and incredible to see it actually go to the moon,” Mann said. “I look forward to working on this project every day, and I can’t wait to see what we’ll be able to learn.”

The moon has a land area larger than Brazil and North America put together, yet less than 5 percent of the surface has been explored. Andy would be able to explore lunar pits, which are giant, steep-sided holes created by the collapse of underground voids.

“These pits are astounding and unexplored; it will be like coming upon the Grand Canyon,” Whittaker said in a news release. “Some pits might be entrances to caves. You can’t explore caves from a satellite; you’ve got to be there, on the ground, so robots are the next big step.”

Andy, developed over the past nine months, has a low center of gravity to navigate slopes and craters and is able to withstand the sun’s high amounts of radiation and the moon’s temperature fluctuations.

Unlike the Earth, the moon has no atmosphere to trap or block heat, so its temperature ranges from -387 degrees Fahrenheit at night to 253 F during the day, according to the California Institute of Technology.

Andy is also unique in that it is relatively small compared to the SUV-size Mars rovers, Mann said. At about 60 pounds and 1-cubic-meter in size, the robot will be able to travel faster and require less solar energy to operate.

The four-wheeled robot has two cameras with mapping technology and will record the first color high-definition panoramic view of the moon’s surface.

Mann said he anticipates that after this mission, there will be a new era of space exploration and visits to the moon will become more frequent.

“During the Apollo mission, people thought of the moon as being a dead, spherical rock,” Mann said. “But with satellites, we’ve realized the moon once had an active geological system, much like Earth did.”

In a few decades, a colony of humans could be formed in the moon pits, which are shielded from the sun’s radiation, he said. The possibilities of Andy are endless.

“It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but I think one day there could be an Armstrong City on the moon,” he said. “Andy is a gateway toward that and toward our future.”

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