Tuesday, August 21, 2012

NASA awards funding for sub-surface exploration by Astrobotics, among 28 needed innovation studies

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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's possible to recover the original impactor by excavating the debris at the bottom of the pit? (Assuming, of course, that the collapse was initiated by an impact. I think it probably was, because of the circular shape.) If the surface rock yielded, rather than melted when the impact occurred, maybe large fragments of the impactor are in the debris. For that matter, has anyone found impact melt at the bottom of a collapse pit?

Joel Raupe said...

You've raised some interesting points, about impact melt in particular. Our brief peeks at the floors of the three confirmed "mare pit craters" at Ingenii, "Haruyama," and Tranquillitatis, haven't told us much. They do appear to be punched through, and through some pretty thick material. That hints at more caverns, but we need more information about the lateral extent and morphology. Then there are those second, larger class of pit craters, in the impact melt on the floor of Copernicus and elsewhere. We've got a lot to learn, but there is more yet to be teased out of the still steady stream of data being accumulated from LRO and the other latter day fleet that will still be yielding new discoveries decades after their missions end.

And, meanwhile, we're working on a summary of what we've started learning about the pit craters (what we know and what we think we know) which will be "published" here in the next few weeks.