Lunar rover prototype tested out on Big Island


It was back to the future, so to speak, Friday morning at Hilo’s Imiloa Astronomy Center, as a pair of Hungarian aerospace developers demonstrated a prototype lunar surface exploration module.

Tibor Pacher and Miklos Pathy of Puli Space Technologies in Budapest, Hungary, are on the Big Island for a week to test the rover they’ve built as part of the Google Lunar X Prize contest.

“Basically, it’s an international space exploration contest that Google is sponsoring,” said Mari-Ela Chock, spokeswoman for the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems. The race is on to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon by 2015 and drive it while transmitting high-definition images and video back to earth. The team that accomplishes that goal wins the $30 million prize put up by the Internet search engine firm.

“The reason PISCES is hosting Team Puli and the reason they’re out here is so they can test their prototype at our testing site. Chances are, if it works on our testing site on the Big Island, it’ll work on the moon,” Chock said.

Chock said Team Puli was putting its rover, which is less than a meter long and weighs about 23 pounds, through some relatively easy paces on a landscaped hill on the Imiloa grounds. The true test will come when it takes the robotic vehicle to the testing site on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea.

“Apollo Valley, as it’s called, was used back when the Apollo crews were on duty. They used it to train out there,” Chock said, and added that Pacher and Pathy “still have to do some preparation work” before they put the rover to the real test.

Pacher, a physicist and Puli’s founder, said the prototype he called “Iteration 2” cost more than $1 million to develop.

“Our goal here is to test the mobility capabilities on real moon-like terrain and to test the remote control procedures. Our team in Budapest will be in charge to control the rover here,” he said.

Pathy, Puli’s robotic developer, was controlling the vehicle during the Imiloa demonstration with a laptop computer.

“We are working on Iteration 3, which will be a space-grade prototype. This one is only earth-grade,” he explained.

The lunar rover of the American Apollo moon missions four decades ago was designed by a Hungarian mechanical engineer, Ferenc Pavlics, Pacher proudly pointed out, adding that the 85-year-old Pavlics is “still alive and in good health” in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Pathy said there is “not too much” difference between the Puli rover and the rover developed for Apollo.

“During design, we had similar problems we had to solve and our problems were solved 40 years ago by the Russians and the Americans,” he said. “Basically, we are making the same functionality that the lunar probes had in the early 1970s, only much smaller and cheaper.”

Pacher said the probe’s chassis is aluminum and the “wags” — wheel and leg combinations — are aluminum with Kevlar-carbon composite feet. They hope the vehicle will ascend and descend rocky grades of 40 to 45 degrees. He said the craft can right itself if it overturns, and it is powered by a pair of battery packs that are fed by solar cells on its top surface.

“If one of the batteries goes down, it goes automatically to the second one, and we use the solar panels to help it with recharging,” he said, noting that the battery life is about eight hours.

Pacher said when the space-grade vehicle is built, they hope to have the weight down to about 17 pounds, because Puli will have to buy a ride into space — probably on a competitor’s spaceship — and the larger the payload, the more expensive.

A group of eighth-graders from Mililani Middle School on Oahu, on the Big Island to visit the volcano and do some community service work, surrounded the rover and marveled at what they saw.

“We are very excited about this,” Errol Hahn, the school’s vice principal, said. “We had other groups come over here a week or so ago and this wasn’t here. It’s very serendipitous for these students.”

Vince Carter and Kyle Pittman, both freshman physics and astronomy majors at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, were on hand to get a first-hand glimpse into the future.

“I just had to see it even though I’m not an engineer type of guy,” said Carter, of Manteca, Calif. “It’s amazing to see something that has a chance to be on the moon and to be so close to a machine that’s so fantastic.”

Pittman, of Santa Cruz, Calif., said “I think it’s really cool that we have something that is able to make (its own) power (and) maneuver in such a rocky, strange landscape that we’re not used to. I mean, the moon is so different from Earth that we need to make stuff like this that can find its way around and not be destroyed if it comes across a big drop or something like that.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.