Update: Part-time scientists win Milestone award!

On January 25, 2015, as part of the Google Lunar X Prize, Part-Time Scientists Berlin won the Mobility Milestone and the Imaging Milestone awards for their submitted project.

The jury awarded the prizes for the PTS's Asimov Rover, which, they said, had demonstrated its ability to resist the enormous forces generated during the rocket launch, navigate successfully on the moon and survive in the hostile moon atmosphere. Even the camera on the vehicle can take a lot of punishment and is capable of transmitting HD videos back to the Earth.

The prizes entail a financial contribution of USD 750,000 to the lunar mission being prepared by the German/Austrian team! This exciting project is now headed into the next round, and 1zu1 was there from the start ...

Ground control to Major Tom

Mario Kulczynski is young, smart and has a dream – to land a robot on the moon. Together with the Part-Time Scientists Berlin, he is participating in the spectacular Google Lunar X Prize, in which project teams from all over the world are competing against each other. The part-time scientists from Berlin are doing well.

The goal of the Lunar X Prize competition seems impossible: The winner must shoot a robotic rover into space, land it on the moon and send TV pictures back to Earth – with a fraction of NASA's budget! The Part-Time Scientists from Berlin have accepted the challenge. 1zu1 Prototypes enthusiastically entered the project and built the functional prototypes for both the lander and rover. A new generation of the space race has begun! Mario Kulczynski explains.

The motto of the Part-Time Scientists is “Hell yeah, it’s rocket science!”. David Bowie's song “Space Oddity” begins with the line: “Ground control to Major Tom”. The eponymous astronaut is then cast adrift in the infinite expanse of space. The Part-Time Scientists and outer space. A love story? Or a hate story?

Our goal of landing on the moon and driving around there in a rover is probably one of the greatest goals anyone can decide to pursue. We took up this challenge about 18 months ago. When we started, we had neither the necessary capital nor the corresponding expertise. Even though the first problem has not yet been solved, we have already come a long way. And we would never have achieved this without our boundless commitment and passion. To return to the question – it's clearly a love story.

Mr. Kulczynski, what exactly do the Part-Time Scientists do?

In a nutshell, we make the impossible possible. My priority at the moment is to get the funding up and running. In addition, I'm establishing contacts with potential partners and coordinating them. We now have more than 20 partners from industry and business, and are working to full capacity. Aside from this, I'm also developing possible strategies for the future, because we don't want to go to the moon just once.

Why do you need functional prototypes when preparing for your moon mission?

Even though we can simulate most of the functions with the Solidworks software provided by our partner Solidline, this is different from holding an actual prototype in your hand. Now that we have made a few modifications to our Rover Asimov Junior 2, for example, we are conducting the first driving tests. These in turn allow us to identify possible improvements or changes. Last but not least, our presentations are much more convincing if we can show a real model instead of just an animation.

How did you hear about 1zu1 Prototypes from Dornbirn in Vorarlberg? The prototyping company is not exactly in the immediate vicinity of Berlin.

On the recommendation of a customer of 1zu1. These days, the range of companies that offer rapid prototyping has become quite confusing. In addition, the quality of these components varies greatly and most of them can't be used for functional testing. In the company 1zu1, we have probably found the best manufacturer for our prototypes right now. In addition, all our components arrive in Berlin three or four days after we place the order. So we don't really notice the distance between Berlin and Dornbirn.

Can you tell us about the collaboration between Part-Time Scientists and 1zu1 Prototypes in the context of your prototype requirements?

At 1zu1, you notice that every employee is passionate about their work. After all, how many companies will reply to an urgent email on Boxing Day? And they've shown us more than once that they're both fast and flexible. Especially when it came to implementing minor design changes shortly before the premiere. I should also mention that the parts in question always meet the requested level of precision.

How have you fared with the two functional prototypes Jules Verne (Lander) and Asimov Junior (Rover)? How have 1zu1 performed in terms of functionality, accuracy, material load, design and surface finish?

Our functional prototypes are designed for different tasks. For example, our Jules Verne R0 lander serves as a model in which we can experiment with the arrangement of the components. Our Asimov Junior R2b rover is used for driving tests, during which we test and further develop the electronics as well as the mechanics. Our rover design was developed for carbon components and can't really be simulated due to differing stresses on the materials – not least due to the different effects of gravity on the Earth and the moon. For this reason, we either replaced certain parts with aluminum or reinforced them with auxiliary structures. In principle, the components have very good material properties that enable us to rework them. For example, we have cut threads in some components and painted others.

The lander prototype was presented at the Euromold in Frankfurt, the Rover prototype at the International Aerospace Exhibition in Berlin. How were your two “babies” received by the audience?

All of our prototypes went down well with our crowd. In particular, our Asimov Junior 2 rover is a firm favorite among the public – people say it bears a certain resemblance to WALL.E (computer animated movie, 2008) or Johnny 5 (robot in a science fiction film, 1986). Our prototypes are admired with great enthusiasm, especially during our occasional public road tests. Our lander is rather unspectacular, as it is difficult to simulate a working engine. However, the model does a very good job of helping us demonstrate that this is a very demanding challenge.

Mr. Kulczynski, when Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, he famously spoke the words “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. In mid-2013, your Asimov Junior robot vehicle will land on the moon. If everything goes to plan, have you already prepared a message for the people here on Earth?

It's now almost forty years since man last went to the moon. It's time we went back there. We have taken the first step and more will follow. Mankind has always been in search of our limits. And we set those limits for ourselves.

Thank you for this interview.

Mario Kulczynski is a member of the core team at Part-Time Scientists Berlin (www.part-time-scientists.com). Hermann Brändle asked the questions.