Carnegie Mellon spinoff firm unveils lunar rover
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Astrobotic Technology Inc., in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, has unveiled the full-sized prototype of Polaris, a solar-powered robot designed to prospect for ice at the moon's poles while pursuing the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize.
Scheduled for liftoff October 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Polaris will ride atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and an Astrobotic lander to transport the robot to a lunar pole.
Polaris includes new technology and computer software to traverse the lunar surface, remain upright, keep its vertical solar panels in line with the sun and out of the long lunar shadows at the poles. It also will be equipped with a drill to bore one meter into the lunar surface in search of ice, methane and ammonia, all of which would be invaluable for human exploration of the moon and beyond.
The robot is essentially wheeled vehicle, 5 1/2 feet high, 7 feet wide and nearly 8 feet long. It weighs about 330 pounds and is desgined to carry up to 150 pounds of scientific equipment.
The Google Lunar X Prize requires the robot to land on the moon, travel at least 500 meters on the surface and send information back to Earth, with additional prizes for other accomplishments including the discovery of ice.
"It is the first rover developed specifically for drilling lunar ice," said William "Red" Whittaker, Astrobotic chief executive officer and founder of the Field Robotics Center at CMU's Robotics Institute.
NASA and Indian spacecraft already have made observations suggesting that a substantial amount of water ice could exist at the lunar poles. It could provide water, oxygen and rocket fuel for future expeditions.
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 traverse near the moon's north pole.
Polaris will replace Red Rover, the robot Astrobotic developed with assistance from CMU, to land near the moon's equator before the decision was made to head to a lunar pole.
With completion of the prototype, Mr. Whittaker said, Astrobotic team members will test and improve the robot's computer vision, navigation and planning software, with additional software to plot the rover's position on the moon within 10 feet.
"What Polaris does is bring those many ideas together into a rover configuration that is capable of going to the moon to find ice," he said.
First Published October 8, 2012 2:28 pm