Monday, April 9, 2012

Astrobotic changes plans, aims for lunar north

High potential resources, greater mobility, better parking? Epps and Wingo of Skycorp/LOIRP made a strong case for preferring the north over the south polar regions for lunar rover missions in a poster presented at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March. Top, fig. 1a from that presentation, shows "LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Data Record Terrain from 87.5° North to the North Pole (3x vertical exaggeration)." Below, LOLA steady accumulation of laser data is bringing the far lunar north out of permanent and near permanent shadow, while other LRO experiments continue to back up low-resolution conclusions offered after the Lunar Prospector (1998-1999) neutron survey, namely that hydrogen species derived from all vectors may be present at twice the accumulation in the north over the lunar south polar regions [NASA/LOLA/Skycorp].
David Templeton
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Astrobotic Technology, one of 26 teams competing for a $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, has altered its October 2015 mission to the moon in dramatic fashion. It's headed to the lunar north pole to prospect for natural resources, including water and methane, and abandoning plans to land near the equator.

The new goal is to advance science by confirming the presence of resources necessary for colonization of the moon. The space robotics company, which holds six NASA contracts to develop robotic equipment for moon missions, changed its strategy to take full scientific advantage of landing its first robot on the moon.

NASA, ESA, Japan, India and China all completed recent satellite orbits of the moon that indicated the presence of water and other resources there, but without confirmation*.

In February, Astrobotic president David Gump announced Astrobotic is the first to announce that it has reserved a launch vehicle -- a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX -- to carry its robot and lander to the moon.

Astrobotic's Polaris robot, which is a lunar rover, also will be able to dig and drill for resources, then analyze and report its findings to Earth. Its landing would represent a major scientific step forward in moon exploration.

"If we get on the ground in the north pole and confirm the presence of resources, that would be the basis for a thriving lunar economy where we could create spacecraft fuel on the moon," Gump said.

Led by noted Carnegie Mellon University roboticist William "Red" Whittaker, the company now is redesigning its Polaris robot to transform it into a lunar prospector. Because the weight the rocket can carry is set, any additional weight added to the robot must be subtracted from the lander, Gump said.

Originally, Astrobotic planned to land a robot near the moon's equator, which would travel across the lunar surface and send video back to Earth. The former plan also included a trip near the Apollo 11 landing site, where the first humans stepped on the lunar surface, and provide fresh video of the famous spot.

"The previous robot was designed to be a scout carrying cameras and making long-distance traverses," Gump said. Astrobotic plans to haul payload from space agencies and scientific institutions to the moon at a cost of $820,000 a pound.

At the north pole, the robot will operate for 10 to 12 days of constant sunlight, then hibernate during the equal period of polar nighttime.

*Editor's Note: India's Moon Impactor Probe (MIP), released from Chandrayaan-1, directly detected the presence of water in trace form before its hard landing near Shackleton crater and the lunar north pole. The Cassini probe detected hydrogen as molecular hydroxyl and water while making baseline calibration observations of the Moon on the way to Saturn in 1999. Water was directly observed in the plume resulting from the LCROSS impact at Cabeus crater. The presence of water, within and near permanently shadowed regions of the Moon has been inferred by remote sensing data consistent with the presence of water ice by Clementine (1994), Lunar Prospector (1998-1999), and more recently from the Mini-RF, LEND and LAMP instruments on-board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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