CMU rolls out prototype for robotic moon rover
David Wettergreen, associate research professor of robotics at CMU, introduces Scarab, a four-wheeled robot for lunar prospecting, to the media during a news conference yesterday. Scarab will never leave Earth. It is intended to demonstrate technologies that a lunar rover will need.
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This version never will leave Earth, but a lunar rover developed by Carnegie Mellon University has demonstrated some key technologies necessary for interplanetary prospecting.
The robotic rover, Scarab, is designed to drill into the ground and obtain core samples a meter long that it also can process and analyze. The eventual goal is finding hydrogen, and possibly water and other chemicals, that can be mined on the moon to produce fuel, water and air essential for supporting lunar outposts.
Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute and School of Computer Science displayed their four-wheeled rover yesterday inside Newell Simons Hall on campus. Eventually, a more sophisticated version will roam extraterrestrial landscapes, then belly down onto the ground and drill, using only the electrical power needed to illuminate a 100-watt light bulb.
Conditions it will encounter on the moon are not for faint-hearted earthbound vehicles.
Scarab will be required to navigate in the perpetual darkness of craters at the moon's southern pole, where ground temperatures will dip to minus 385 degrees with no source of energy on hand.
"It's a place where humans can't work effectively, but where Scarab will thrive," said William "Red" Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon's Fredkin Research Professor and principal investigator in the project funded by NASA.
By year's end, Carnegie Mellon roboticists hope to complete software to allow Scarab to travel more than a kilometer and then perform drilling procedures automatically, among other functions, said David Wettergreen, an associate professor at the university's Robotics Institute.
A key feature will be its ability to lower itself to the ground for drilling operations, or to rise 21 inches off the ground to climb over rocks and rough lunar terrain.
Dr. Wettergreen said the goal is to complete the rover in two to four years so it can travel to the moon and demonstrate its technological talents.
"One way to think about it [is] most of the hardware and mechanisms have been worked out, and now we're turning to the software," he said. "The technologies already are there for drilling, processing and mobility, and now it's an engineering challenge to put it all together and make it robust enough."
Operating for months in darkness, Scarab will be powered by energy produced by radioisotopes rather than batteries or solar power, and find guidance from low-power, laser-based sensors.
Power constraints will reduce its mobility to four inches per second, with the ability to pause and store up energy whenever it faces obstacles or drilling tasks.
At 550 pounds, the rover can provide sufficient downward pressure to bore into the soil with a central drill.
"It's a good combination vehicle that does two things very well," said John Caruso, project manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "Scarab is successful because it achieves the design simplicity of a single-purpose machine while accomplishing the multiple purposes of driving and drilling in darkness."
NASA has yet to announce a mission involving Scarab, but successful development of the rover will help reduce the risks of such a mission. Glenn Research Center is developing radioisotope power sources for deep space and lunar applications.
The drill, produced by Northern Centre for Advanced Technology Inc. in Sudbury, Ontario, can process and analyze core samples. A team of engineers headed by John Thornton, a CMU student who builds streamlined racers featured in the university's annual Buggy Races, built the rover's streamlined carbon-composite body.
Carnegie Mellon hopes to hold a field experiment, possibly on an area slag pile or quarry, in December to demonstrate Scarab's prowess.
First Published September 21, 2007 12:00 am