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MIT class asks: Fly me to the moon?

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Even for MIT, where so many classes and activities involve competitions and the creation of proposals that might lead to new businesses and to solving large technological challenges, this one was unusual. This semester's aero-astro graduate space systems engineering class, 16.89, was aimed at figuring out whether MIT could, or should, mount an entry into the $20-million Google Lunar X-Prize competition, announced last fall.

After three and a half months of research on what it would take to meet the prize's requirements--getting a privately-funded robotic craft to the moon, having it travel at least 500 meters once it gets there, and sending back streams of high-definition still and video imagery--the bottom line the students arrived at was: Yes, we can (technically)!

Whether it's possible to raise the necessary funding and pull together the necessary partnerships with industry, and whether the investment of time, money and hard work is worth pursuing, are matters still under discussion. A decision is expected within about six weeks, says Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor of the Practice Jeffrey Hoffman, who taught the class together with Professor Edward Crawley.

A prize entry would cost between $20 and $30 million, the class concluded, most of it for purchasing launch services to get the craft into low-Earth orbit.

The class looked at several different options for each phase of the mission. For example, one choice is whether to launch the craft to the moon directly from Earth, or send it into Earth orbit first and then to the moon. Another is how to achieve the 500-meter trip once it arrives on the moon: Either having a wheeled rover or a spherical "roller" separate from the craft after lunar touchdown, or using a "hopper" approach, by having the whole craft land, then take off again, move to the side, and land again. And there were dozens of smaller choices to be made, including the materials to use for the structure, the kind of batteries to use and the best ways of communicating data back to Earth.

Hoffman, a former astronaut who flew five shuttle missions and carried out the first repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, says this class served a dual purpose. First, as students in the class do every year, they got to solve a very specific challenge to design an entire space mission, learning about all the different aspects involved in that process, from evaluating the technical tradeoffs involved in every choice of hardware or strategy, to the challenges of working together as an effective team.

Going through that process "illustrates some of the basic principles of the design process," Hoffman says, and thus fulfills the pedagogical purpose of the course. But in addition, "in this case, the idea of designing a lunar robotic mission is interesting in its own right," and because of the possibility that an MIT-led team might actually enter the contest, gives this project an extra dose of reality and excitement.

"It's not just a paper study, in the sense that something is riding on it," Hoffman says. And if the decision is made to go ahead with a contest entry, "it's a major undertaking, a multiyear project. It will mean putting together a team--students will come and go, and faculty will provide continuity," he says.

There were 15 students in the class, but if MIT decides to enter the competition, the team might include some of them as well as others who are not yet involved. "We would hope to attract others, including participants from other departments," such as EECS, CSAIL, EAPS and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"It's a big challenge," Hoffman says. Ten teams have already officially registered to participate in the lunar challenge, which was created by X-Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis '83, SM '88. Among the teams is a student group from Carnegie-Mellon University, which has a partnership with Raytheon and has vowed to reach the moon by July 20, 2009--the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing by astronauts.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 21, 2008 (download PDF).

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