Sunday, June 28, 2009

Students compete to send robot to the moon

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Team Omega Envoy finished preparations Saturday to send their prototype lunar rover to the North Pole.

UCF students have created a company dedicated to building and landing a lunar rover in hopes of winning $30 million in prizes from Google. The competition is an effort to have a 90 percent privately-funded group send a robot to the moon to travel 500 meters, collect HD video and panoramic views, and send the first e-mail and text message from the moon.

Senior Ruben Nunez and grad students Jason Dunn and Justin Karl created the team Omega Envoy as part of Earthrise Space Inc., a not-for-profit company they founded with which they entered the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition.

“It’s a big systems engineering project,” Nunez said. “We have our requirements already set for the entire project, from building to launch day.”

The project was planned in collaboration between organizations such as the Florida Space Institute, Embry-Riddle, 4Frontiers and Lippman Law Offices.

Saturday the team prepared their rover to be sent to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station in the North Pole with 4Frontiers Vice President Joseph E. Palaia. They will be using this time at Devon Island in Nunavut, Canada to test the communication capabilities of the robot.

“I’m going to be up there for the whole month, with a crew of five other people, living in a simulated Mars habitat,” Palaia said, “and so, I offered to bring this up there with me, so they can control this, just as if they were operating their rover on the moon.”

This will allow UCF students to test how well they can control the rover in a terrain similar to those they will encounter in the competition.

The prototype rover was designed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Team at UCF and is the second model to be constructed. The rover was built in two weeks in an effort to take advantage of the rare opportunity the students have been given.

“The rover takes video and remotely feeds it to us, and we can remotely control it from a computer at UCF,” said Eric Travis, a UCF student on the Omega Envoy team.

The complete project has a budget of approximately $40 million. Of that, $20 million has been donated to the team from its various sponsors.

Omega Envoy joined the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition in October of last year, which will be open until Dec. 31, 2012.

Nunez said if a privately funded effort can be proven to work, then other corporations like NASA would be encouraged to hire outside sources to meet more of their mission-related needs.

“We’re going to prove that they’ll work when we send it to the moon,” Nunez said. “Doing this will save them time and money.”

Nunez put this idea into effect by soliciting help from UCF students to handle the various needs of the project. Nunez said this is an interdisciplinary effort, not only employing engineering, but also business, marketing and law students.

Nunez said he had a UCF senior design team spend the year designing the wheels for the final version of the rover, each of which will be individually powered and operated.

The Omega Envoy team is also offering students the chance to name their rover. Those who are interested can visit their Web site at and submit a two-minute video explaining why they chose their name for the rover. The chosen name will be engraved into the final version, which will be sent to the moon.

Nunez, Dunn and Karl have high hopes for Earthrise Space Inc. They are planning to expand the corporation in the future and take on similar projects that allow students hands-on learning in their fields.

“It’s just a start up right now,” Nunez said, “but we are looking to do more projects in the future.”


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