I'm sure you remember me mentioning my friend Brian who lives in Minnesota and is the owner of Beckius Truck Repair. As you may recall, Brian – whose hobby is playing with microcontrollers and building robots – is an incredible machinist and has a fully-equipped, industrial-strength machine shop.
Well, Brian and I are constantly bouncing emails back and forth on such topics as Victorian-styled, steam-powered motorcycles (I'm trying to persuade him to build me one). However, I was somewhat puzzled to receive the following message:
Hey Max, we need some help picking out radiation hard electronics for our moon rover, would you be interested in helping out? Later, Brian
What? Rad-hard electronics? Moon Rover? Was I going crazy? What was the boy waffling on about? Of course I immediately called Brian to see what was going on. It turns out that things are progressing so fast that he's in a spin, and he was sure he'd mentioned that he was involved in a project to put a robot rover on the moon (and you thought I was a wild and wacky guy). While we were speaking on the phone, Brian emailed two pictures of his prototype rover to me as follows (you can also see a Video of the Rover's first trip outdoors on YouTube):
So here's what I've discovered thus far. On September 13, 2007, the X PRIZE Foundation and Google announced the Google Lunar X Prize with a $30 million prize purse. The idea is to get individuals and companies from around the world to compete to land a privately-funded robotic rover on the Moon.
The $30 million prize purse is segmented into a $20 million Grand Prize, a $5 million Second Prize, and $5 million in bonus prizes. In order to win the Grand Prize, a team must successfully soft land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, rove on the lunar surface for a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit a specific set of video, images, and data back to the Earth.
The reason this interested Brian is that – as fate would have it – he just happened to have his prototype robot rover sitting on the workbench (go figure). Brian immediately started bouncing ideas around with a group of which he is a member at the Parallax Forum (Parallax [www.parallax.com] are, of course, the makers of the BASIC Stamp and the Propeller Chip).
From these discussions, a core group of "Moon Rover-ites" has emerged. One team is working on communication, another on propulsion, another on the moon lander, and yet another on the moon rover itself (this latter group is headed by Brian). All of this is really recent; for example, the team just set up a group at Yahoo (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/lunarx).
Which brings us back to Brian's original question about radiation-hardened parts. As you may imagine, my knee-jerk reaction is to think of FPGA's, and I remember recently posting an article about Actel's RTAX-S radiation-tolerant FPGAs on Programmable Logic DesignLine. A quick visit to the Actel website at www.actel.com reminds us that:
RTAX-S radiation-tolerant FPGAs offer industry-leading advantages for designers of space-flight systems. High performance and low-power consumption, true single-chip form factor, and live-at-power-up operation all combine to make RTAX-S the FPGA of choice for space designers. From concept to final integration and flight, Actel provides the tools and support to help you successfully integrate your space-flight application into RTAX-S radiation-tolerant FPGAs. Additionally, for space applications that have a need for a lower standby current, Actel offers RTAX-SL, the low-power grade option that has half the standby current of the standard product at worst-case conditions.
Good Golly Miss Molly! This sounds like just the thing. But the point is that the FPGA would be just one component. Brian's team needs volunteers and as much help and expertise as they can get. As Brian told me: "Everything about building something that goes into space is different. As one simple example, you can't use grease as a lubricant, because the combination of vacuum and radiation makes it evaporate and the metal parts end up 'welded' together."
So, would you like to be part of a team that builds a robot rover and flies it to the moon? I know I'm excited, even if my only contribution is to bring the coffee and donuts! If you are interested, feel free to email Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me – Clive "Max" Maxfield – at email@example.com). And, of course, if you haven't already done so, don't forget to Sign Up for our weekly Programmable Logic DesignLine Newsletter.