|Close-ups of the Tranquillitatis pit crater (8.337°N, 33.219°E), LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) observation M155016845R, LRO orbit 7979, March 17, 2011. The interior is seen under a high Sun (incidence angles around 10.58°) and at resolutions close to 47.4 centimeters per pixel, from 39.67 kilometers. LROC QuickMap link [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].|
Astrobotic Technologies has announced a contract with NASA to develop technologies for exploring caves on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Astrobotic was one of ten teams to be selected for phase II awards from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
NASA also announced funding for 28 innovative programs under the NIAC label.
Planetary caverns and tunnels can provide shelter from micrometeorites, radiation, and thermal extremes for human and robotic explorers. They may be the best hope for habitation on the Moon. They could be the best place on Mars to find life. They can provide a window into a planet's past geology, climate, and even biology. Recently discovered skylights, formed by partial cave ceiling collapse, provide access to sub-surface voids. In a phase I study for NASA's NIAC program, Astrobotic developed several mission concepts and investigated key technologies for exploring these exciting planetary destinations.
In phase II, Astrobotic will detail a mission concept for entering a planetary cave through a skylight, and exploring and modeling the interior. "Skylights are gateways to wonders of exploration, science and resources that await beneath planetary surfaces", said Red Whittaker, Astrobotic CEO. "Robots are our access to those new worlds." Robotic technologies will be developed to explore the extreme terrains of skylights and caves. This is very different from surface exploration, as has been achieved on the Moon and Mars. Technologies will be developed to descend into the holes, negotiate the blocky floors, and thread into the tunnels. The company will also roadmap technology for future planetary cave exploration missions. Astrobotic will collaborate with experts in subterranean robotics at Carnegie Mellon University on this contract.