Off to find the art side of the Moon

American professor plans to win Google lunar prize with artistic robots. John Morgan reports

November 26, 2009

As debate continues over the wider impact of academic research, a US professor is thinking big with a project that aims to put art on the Moon and transform humanity's sense of itself in the cosmos.

Lowry Burgess, a pioneer in the field of space art, leads an interdisciplinary group of visual artists, engineers, musicians and roboticists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The group plans to launch an interactive arts project on the Moon in May 2011, using a lunar rover designed by Carnegie Mellon roboticist William "Red" Whittaker and his Astrobotic team.

The rover will be pursuing the $20 million (£12 million) Google Lunar X Prize, an international competition challenging privately funded teams to land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel at least 500 metres over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to Earth.

Professor Burgess, a dean and distinguished fellow in Carnegie Mellon's Studio for Creative Inquiry, describes the project as a "unique, historic moment", and a chance to "allow people to interact with and become aware of the Moon much more deeply".

"My greatest aim is to engage the human spirit in its full context - that includes the cosmos - to sense the titanic glory of being inside a universe that is so extremely beautiful," he said.

One of the artworks will be Moon Marks, in which the pyramid-shaped rover will "draw with the tracks it leaves", following designs submitted by internet users and beaming back a view of the results via a high-definition camera.

The Moon Bell will send radio waves back and forth between the Earth and the Moon, turning the Moon into a "sitar, lyre or harp", as Professor Burgess describes it. The sound will be the basis for music by the Carnegie Mellon orchestra.

And then there is the Moon Fragrance element of the project, which will ask members of the public to imagine the scent of the Moon, create a perfume from their suggestions and release it on the Moon itself.

"We are going to perfect some lunar essences, put together by some of the great perfumiers of the world," Professor Burgess said. "We're going to take a lunar essence and say: 'Hey Moon, here's what we think you smell like.'?"

Space art will be a key concern if humanity establishes itself beyond Earth, Professor Burgess believes.

"Almost everything changes once you take gravity away. All relationships shift. That is going to lead to new psychologies, new societies, a new aesthetic completely," he said.

In 1989, Professor Burgess sent a glass box filled with water from 18 of the world's great rivers into orbit aboard a Nasa shuttle.

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