Pittsburgh-based space robotics company Astrobotic Technology Inc., led by Carnegie Mellon University’s William “Red” Whittaker, rolled out the first prototype of its lunar ice prospecting robot, Polaris, in the Gates Center at its first official public unveiling.
Whittaker described the goal of Polaris: to explore the vast underground water and gas resources discovered as ice on the Moon two years ago. It has been developed for an expedition to the moon’s northern pole that would launch from Cape Canaveral atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Polaris, equipped with a drill and other prospecting equipment designed to bore one meter into the lunar surface, can answer questions about the gas that satellite data cannot.
“What is it, what is it made of, where is it, what is its concentration, can you extract it, can you use it?” Whittaker asked. “[Polaris] changes everything.”
Answering these questions could have a large impact on the future of space exploration. “Because see, if you could refuel after leaving the Earth, you can go anywhere,” Whittaker said.
In order to learn how to use this extraterrestrial gas to fuel travel beyond our current limits, Whittaker explained we must first travel to the Moon. In October 2015, Astrobotic plans to send Polaris to a carefully chosen location near the Moon’s northern pole.
And this will be difficult, he said, because the rover will be completely autonomous. Without radio GPS and remote control, the robot will have to compare its surroundings to satellite images of the Moon’s surface to determine its location. It will have to see and maneuver around rocks larger than 15 centimeters — roughly the size of a bowling ball — that could obstruct its path.
To find the ice, a rover must operate as close to the dark poles as possible, but not so far that it can’t use solar arrays for power, Whittaker said. Polaris has three large solar arrays, arranged vertically to capture light from low on the horizon.
The solar arrays will be capable of an average of 250 watts of electrical power.
Polaris also makes use of software, pioneered in CMU’s NASA-funded Hyperion robot, that keeps track of the rover’s position relative to the sun’s rays to maximize solar energy and husbands battery power for use in the long shadows and dark regions found at the poles.
Polaris also needs to be able to successfully land, and to achieve this, Astrobotic is also developing a high-precision lander. Once the lander and its payload near the desired region of the Moon’s surface, it will slow down and hover for about four days before it decides where to land and make its slow descent.
In addition to accuracy, the lander will also boast versatility.
“This lander is designed for this rover, [but also] for the smaller rover and for carrying payloads underneath. We can go without a rover all together, as long as we are within our mass constraints, which are fairly large,” explained Kevin Peterson, a Ph.D. robotics student working on the project. “That lets us design one lander and then go out and find a payload.”
This will allow the company, which is already receiving $1 million a year from NASA alone, to easily commercialize its lander to other Moon-goers.
“The company’s goal is not to win the X Prize; it is to commercialize space,” said Aaron Acton in reference to the Google Lunar X Prize, the largest contest of its kind in history. Acton has been working on the project for more than three years, ever since he began his master’s in mechanical engineering.
“As part of that goal, to win the X Prize, would be great,” he added.
Astrobotic was founded shortly after the announcement of the X Prize contest in 2008, and is determined to compete with 26 other groups. With its team of over a dozen Carnegie Mellon students and alumni, the company is preparing to move to a new location so that it can expand its research and operations.Read More