When it comes to exploring the solar system, all attention today is focused on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars early this August.
But scientists have not forgotten about other important opportunities, and engineering research at Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company Astrobotic Technology Inc. could herald a major push a bit closer to home.
Astrobotic was founded by WillIam “Red” Whittaker, a professor at the Robotics Institute at CMU and the founder of the school’s Fields Robotics Center, in large part to chase after a $20 million prize being offered by Google to reach the moon with a privately-funded probe. The Google Lunar X Prize has attracted 26 different teams from around the world, all aiming to reach the moon’s surface by 2015.
There is plenty of competition for the prize, but Astrobotic finds itself in a strong position with the introduction of its first full-scale prototype of its Polaris rover.
While Google is only asking teams to reach the moon’s surface, drive a short ways and take a few pictures, Astrobotic is also aiming to tackle one of the challenges set by NASA. The agency is looking to start probing the moon’s surface for deposits of water ice, which could prove to be a vital resource for any potential manned stations, providing everything from simple water to fuel and oxygen, once it is broken down.
Drilling for water
Within the past few years NASA has confirmed the existence of significant water deposits under the surface, but will need ground-based testing to learn much more.
Polaris should give them this opportunity.
“It is the first rover developed specifically for drilling lunar ice,” said Whittaker. “What Polaris does is bring those many ideas together into a rover configuration that is capable of going to the moon to find ice.”
The task is more challenging than it might seem even working from the starting point of getting a rover to the moon.
While there are significant water deposits under the moon’s surface, the largest ones appear to be located near the lunar poles, where the sun is rarely far from the horizon and often blocked by long, dark shadows. This means that solar panels must be specifically oriented to make the best use of the low-hanging sun, and a rover must carry a heavy battery simply to be able to survive without sunlight for a time.
While days last about 14 times as long on the moon, the company only has around 10 days when they will be able to reliably drill.
The obvious adjustment for Polaris’ solar panels was to arrange them vertically along the sides of the rover’s peaked body.
Accommodating the necessary batteries along with the already heavy drilling equipment was a bit more difficult. At five-and-a-half feet tall, seven feet wide and 8 feet long, the machine was already fairly large. Taking on the added weight was made possible with the use of a variety of new lightweight composite materials.
The new prototype, though not generally space-worthy, includes these composites in many of the key components, such as the chassis beams and the wheels. This should give the researchers a chance to test the rover’s capabilities under real-life conditions.
Astrobotics will also be able to test out the drilling systems here on Earth. Polaris is expected to be able to drill to a depth of around four feet.
With its solar panels producing a peak of around 250 watts, the rover will not be moving particularly fast – less than one mile per hour – but Astrobotics still hopes that it could drill potentially as many as 100 holes in its 10 long days of search time.