October 10, 2012
Polaris Lunar Rover Sets Its Sights On Google X Prize
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
A full size prototype of the Polaris lunar rover was unveiled recently by Astrobotic Technology Inc., a spin-off company of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Polaris is a water-prospecting robot specially designed to work in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar poles.
Polaris is scheduled to launch using a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene created by the private space firm, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). The rover is in the running for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, which is offered to the first privately funded team to safely land a robot on the lunar surface. The team must also send back video, images and data to Earth.
David Szondy for GizMag reports that the Polaris rover will be seeking ice deposits that could be used by future colonists. Scientists have been tossing around the idea of an outpost on the Moon for over 70 years. So far, they always come up against the obstacle of finding water. Shipping costs would be astronomical, so the only economically viable solution would be to find water already on the Moon.
If water can be found on the lunar surface, colonists could grow crops, generate air and create fuel for visiting spaceships. Without it, any stay on the Moon is limited by the amount of water that can be brought on the ship.
Until recently, the surface daytime temperatures, which reach into the hundreds of degrees, made this dream of a permanent lunar base just a dream. NASA and Indian orbital probes have detected possible water sources at the lunar poles, where the craters are in perpetual shadow. Those craters present their own challenges. Most rovers are solar powered, and the light that reaches the craters is rare. The terrain is also very rugged. While other missions can adapt their objectives to areas where rovers can operate more easily, on the Moon, you have to follow the ice.
Astrobotic believes Polaris is the answer because it is designed to operate at the lunar poles and is purposely built for prospecting.
"It is the first rover developed specifically for drilling lunar ice," William "Red" Whittaker, Astrobotic CEO and founder of the Field Robotics Center at CMU's Robotics Institute, told Szondy. Whittaker says that Polaris is an amalgamation of the other robots built at the center to study drilling on the Moon. "What Polaris does is bring those many ideas together into a rover configuration that is capable of going to the moon to find ice."
Weighing 150 pounds, Polaris measures 5.5 feet high, 7 feet wide, and 8 feet long with the ability to carry another 150 pounds of payload as well as a drill. It is built to handle rough terrain with composite wheels and a special suspension which allows it to move about one foot per second. The rover is built of lightweight alloys and composites, specially chosen because they will not contaminate samples with gases.
The trickiest part of the Polaris mission is keeping the rover powered, since it is solar powered and will be exploring shadowed craters looking for ice deposits. The solar arrays on Polaris need to be very large and vertically arranged to catch enough light to generate 250 watts of power. To achieve this, Polaris will use software originally written for CMU's Hyperion robot. This software will allow Polaris to track its position and make sure it catches enough light while using its energy with the most efficiency.
According to Engadget´s Jamie Rigg, Polaris' launch date has not been set, but over the next few months, Astrobotic will test and improve the vision, navigation and planning software. Polaris' initial mission is ten days, traveling three miles and drilling between 10 to 100 core samples. If Polaris survives the 14-day lunar night, the mission will be extended indefinitely.
NASA is providing backing for Polaris in the form of capital and ice-prospecting gear.