Monday, April 28, 2008

Cat shoots for the moon

Company teams with NASA to build habitats, roads on lunar surface

By PAUL GORDON of the Peoria Journal Star

PEORIA - Caterpillar Inc. doesn't plan to stop at being the No. 1 construction equipment maker in the world. It's aiming for the universe, with NASA as its partner.

Caterpillar and NASA - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - are getting closer to having the right earthmoving - er, moonmoving - equipment available to put on the moon in less than a decade to build habitats, roads and other infrastructure that could sustain life on the lunar surface.

"We're pretty far along. I would say our partnership with Caterpillar is right on schedule," said Lucien Junkin, NASA's chief engineer of the Chariot project the two have been working on since 2006.

Chariot is the name given to the vehicle, which NASA calls
a "lunar truck" that is being co-developed using Caterpillar's robotics technology and NASA's knowledge of the surface, which Junkin describes as rocky and sandy, devoid of any moisture. "The moon 'dust' is more like crushed gravel, with fine, sharp edges," he said.

The technology is being developed in a Caterpillar skid steer loader and later will be transferred to the Chariot, which would be able to be operated through remote control or automation, said Eric Reiners, engineering manager of electronics and controls in Caterpillar's Technical Solutions Division.

The Chariot and the work Caterpillar and NASA are doing on the project is detailed - to date, anyway - in a pair of brief videos that can be viewed on Caterpillar's Web site,

In the video, Junkin said NASA began renewing its interest in moon exploration when President Bush, in early 2004, called on the space agency to find a way for man to live on the moon.

Junkin said NASA, knowing that meant infrastructure would be needed where there is nothing but moon dust now, "turned to the people we believe are the best at doing things like building roads, berms, landing strips or digging and trenching, and that's Caterpillar."

Junkin, himself a nationally known expert in robotics, said NASA will tap Caterpillar's expertise not only in machine technology, but also the best way to make the machine do the tasks at hand.

"Mankind has never done construction or moved dirt on another celestial body. That's why we wanted Caterpillar's expertise," Junkin said.

Caterpillar, said Reiners, knew of NASA's interest in sustaining life on the moon from an earlier project. "So we got together and agreed to start working together again, exchanging intellectual property," he said.

NASA wanted help to find a way to make the machines work without a human operator, something Caterpillar has experience with, Reiner said. "Robotics and automation takes the human operator out of dangerous situations," he said.

Even if there are humans on the moon when work occurs, much of the moon dust moving will be done by remote control from the lunar habitat or from Earth, or through programmed automation.

That's because humans can be out in the elements of the moon only a short period at a time. Part of that is because of the extremes in a lunar day, which is the equivalent of 28 earth days: It can go from 270 degrees during the day to 250 degrees below zero at night.

"I would say we are at various stages in the technology development," Reiners said. One problem with trying to operate the lunar truck by remote control from Earth is the distance creates a time lag of several seconds between the time the command is given and executed and acknowledged. That's why work is being done so the machine can be programmed to execute certain functions on its own.

Junkin and Reiners said the Chariot project, part of NASA's Constellation Program, is on schedule to send equipment and begin doing infrastructure in 2016 or 2017, with humans returning to the moon by 2020 or 2021.

"It's very exciting," said Reiners, who has been with Caterpillar 21 years. "The people who are doing the day-to-day development work here at Mossville are very excited about what we're doing.

"It fits very well with what Cat has been doing around the world, and now we are looking at humanity expanding its presence to other places outside Earth. Some are calling the moon our eighth continent. It only makes sense Cat would be on hand to help make it happen," he said.

Paul Gordon can be reached at 686-3288 or

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