by Gary Rainville

Considering NASA completed multiple missions to the moon more than 40 years ago using the technological equivalent of chicken wire and duct tape, landing a robotic lunar rover with modern technology should be a pushover, right?

Not exactly, explained Robert Boehme and Wes Faler, of Part-Time Scientists, during their Day Three keynote address in front of a rapt audience at GTC. A modern mission still has to contend with temperature swings by 300 degrees Celsius and component-destroying lunar sand so fine it can penetrate “airtight” astronaut space suits. Not to mention 10-times the radiation from the sun than we experience on Earth.

Robert Boehme (blue) and Wes Faler (white) talk
about their quest to win the Google Lunar X Prize

The pair is part of a team of more than 100 volunteer scientists, engineers, researchers and students – even veterans of NASA’s Apollo missions – vying to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and the $30 million that comes with it. To succeed, the team needs to be the first privately funded team to safely land a rover on the surface of the moon, drive the rover at least 500 meters, and transmit detailed video, images and data back to Earth.

To help ensure its success, the Part-Time Scientists are relying on NVIDIA GPUs to accelerate the mission’s computationally intensive applications. This includes everything from simulating the landing craft’s final orbit and approach, to modeling the rover’s autonomous navigation of the lunar surface in one-sixth the Earth’s gravity – tasks that require hundreds of millions of computing runs to determine possible parameters and their effects.

Once their rover, named Asimov, has reached its destination, the processing and broadcasting of high-resolution video and images back to Earth will require more than 34 trillion floating point operations for the square kilometer the team expects the rover to explore.

Robert and Wes left a surprise for the end of the keynote. They revealed, to the delight of the audience, that Asimov will be a self-driving rover using NVIDIA GPUs to autonomously roam the moon. They then instructed the crowd to check under their seats for an even bigger surprise: one lucky keynote attendee would walk away from GTC 2012 with the Asimov Junior rover prototype.

NASA’s moon missions are famous for having helped bring into existence new technologies, like Teflon and Tang. Four decades on, NVIDIA’s GPU technology is helping volunteer rocket scientists every step of the way on a journey back into space.