Here on Earth, people prospect for gold and other valuable metals, resources and gems. But on the moon, a new robot will prospect for something key to human survival there: ice.
That's the new goal of Astrobotic Technology Inc., the Carnegie Mellon University spinoff in Oakland, in its pursuit of the $20 million Google X Prize, which will be awarded to the first group to land a robot on the moon that also can travel 500 meters or more across the lunar surface and send images and data back to Earth. Added cash awards will be given for other achievements, including the discovery of lunar ice.
Scheduled for an October 2015 liftoff from Cape Canaveral, the new robot Polaris will sit atop an Astrobotic lander, and both will be whisked into lunar orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The lander will separate from the rocket and make a soft landing, likely near the moon's north pole, where sunlight will be more abundant at that time of the lunar year. A metal track will fold down so that Polaris, designed like a shark fin with a flattened top, can roll onto the lunar surface.
The robot, loaded with new technology, will be able to read the terrain, navigate safely, remain upright and keep vertical solar panels facing the sun. Polaris' solar panels will generate 250 watts of electrical power. Equipped with a powerful rechargeable battery, the robot will work to avoid long shadows produced by the sun's low position in the sky to prevent a power drain.
Key technology will include a drill the robot will use to bore one meter into the lunar surface in search of ice necessary to provide human settlers and explorers with water and oxygen, while also serving as a source of rocket fuel for their return to Earth or exploration of deeper space.
"Most of all, we hope to find ammonia, methane and water -- and lots of it," said William "Red" Whittaker, Astrobotic chief executive officer and founder of the Field Robotics Center at CMU's Robotics Institute. "It's possible now to explore the moon and discover resources with value."
On Monday, he and Astrobotic president John Thornton unveiled a prototype of Polaris that stands 51/2 feet tall, weighs about 330 pounds and is designed to carry a 150-pound payload. With the moon's gravity being one-sixth of Earth's, the 500-pound robot and payload will weigh a mere 80 pounds on the moon.
Three years ago, NASA reported that impact plumes analyzed by sensing satellites found evidence of water and ice in the moon's Cabeus Crater near the lunar south pole. The plume showed the spectral signature of hydroxyl, a key indicator that water is present on the crater floor. Further analysis indicated that roughly 6 percent of the plume in impact areas was water, including nearly pure ice crystals in some areas.
An Indian moon mineralogy mapper also showed low concentrations typical of hydroxyl over much of the lunar surface and not limited to permanently shadowed craters. Another experiment indicated possible large deposits of water ice in the northern lunar craters.
"No one has been on the ground and has found water or verified a droplet, or how deep it is or where it is," Mr. Thornton said, noting that Astrobotic is still interested in equatorial mission and polar missions with the most traction initially from a polar expedition.
Polaris, Mr. Whittaker said, "is the first rover developed specifically for drilling lunar ice."
In coming months, Astrobotic will test the flight prototype and make improvements in its computer vision, navigation and planning software, with development of software to plot the rover's position within 10 feet.
The lunar day is 14 Earth days long, Mr. Whittaker said, but water prospecting will be possible for only 10 of those Earth days. Polaris is scheduled to drill 10 to 100 holes to locate and characterize water ice deposits.
If Polaris can survive long, frigid lunar nights, as the team anticipates it will, the prospecting mission could be extended indefinitely with hopes, Mr. Whittaker said, of it continuing its exploration on the lunar surface for months.
Astrobotic has won nine lunar contracts from NASA worth $3.6 million, including one to evaluate how Polaris can accommodate NASA's ice-prospecting instruments during a three-mile mission near the moon's north pole.
The team is seeking corporate sponsors with plans to provide video, images and data that could be used in a television documentary of the mission. Among other projects being planned, Mr. Thornton said, Polaris can use its treads to imprint large corporate logos in moon dust that would last indefinitely and could be used for corporate advertising.
ON THE WEB
Visit post-gazette.com to watch video of the lunar vehicle in motion.
First Published October 9, 2012 4:00 AM