April 30, 2009

Little Robot Aims To Get Moon Ready For Outpost

As the race to the moon between private firms heats up, many have high expectations for Astrobotic Technology Inc.

Formed by Red Whittaker, a professor and roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, Astrobotic is among a collective of 17 teams competing against each other for their piece of the $30 million Lunar X prize being offered up by Google.

In order to win, the Astrobotic team hopes to become the first privately funded team to send a robot rover to the Apollo 11 site where NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made first contact with the lunar surface four decades ago.

As a part of the competition, the robots must land on the moon, travel a distance of 500 meters (1,640 feet) and transmit about 18 minutes of high definition video and still images back to Earth.

The prize can be won at any time. The first team to reach the moon will receive $20 million if the mission occurs before December 31, 2012, at which point the first prize sum would drop to $15 million through December 2014, after which it is eliminated.

The second team to reach the moon will receive $5 million, and Google is offering another $5 million to teams for bonus achievements.

Slated for December 2010, Astrobotic's "Tranquility Trek" plan relies on "Red Rover", a small, wheeled rover about the size of a riding lawnmower that is expected to be able to complete the challenges in one or two Earth days.

The team admits that a robot about the size of a microwave oven could probably get the job done, but not in she same short period of time as the larger rover.

"For example, if a micro-rover needs two weeks to complete the tasks, it could fail halfway through when surface temperatures surge at 'noon' to levels exceeding boiling water," said Astrobotic, adding that its rover will land just after local dawn when temperatures are moderate.

Also, Astrobotic intends for its rover to be large enough to carry out necessary tasks of scouting and surveying for future manned visits to the moon.

"A hopper tends to contaminate and disturb its landing sites with exhaust from its rockets, interfering with scientific analysis," the team said. "In addition, many early tasks on the frontier require digging and hauling which are best done by wheeled machines."

Astrobotic last month reported a NASA-sponsored study that concluded its small robots could work to safely prepare a landing site for NASA's Moon outpost.

The study's results were presented at a NASA Lunar Surface Systems conference co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Space Enterprise Council in Washington, D.C.

"Current planning has missions two and three directed to the poles because NASA and other agencies plan to establish permanent outposts there," said the team. "The South Pole and North Pole scouts will compile detailed terrain maps and collect data requested by the customer communities."

"Astrobotic Technology is going to do a series of missions for scouting, prospecting, mining, and all sorts of things that robots can do to get ready for the human return to the moon," said David Gump, president of Astrobotic.

According to Astrobotic, the research was centered on two potential solutions: construction of a berm around the landing site, and creation of a hard-surface landing pad using indigenous materials.

Researchers found that two rovers weighing 330 pounds each would require less than six months to build an 8.5-foot-tall berm around the landing site.

In the other method, researchers found that small robots could comb the lunar soil for rocks that would be suitable for creating a durable landing site.

"This might reduce the need to build protective berms," said John Kohut, Astrobotic's chief executive officer. "To discern the best approach, early robotic scouting missions need to gather on-site information about the soil's cohesion levels and whether rocks and gravel of the right size can be found at the site."

"Unlike during the Apollo era, it's clear to many people that the future of the lunar frontier will be a mixed colony of humans and robots simultaneously," said Gump.

"Our goal is to be a company to which you can outsource things. You want to scout a landing site ahead of time, you hire us. You want to get a soil sample before sending your mining machines, you hire us. You need some electrical power supply, we'd have a service."

Astrobotic's list of partnerships continues to grow. Aerospace and defense corporation Raytheon Co., along with other sponsors have put up over $3 million into the team's planned expeditions. Additionally, it has already found a client in Celestis, which intends to consult Astrobotic and Odyssey Moon to deliver cremated human remains to the moon.


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