Monday, April 23, 2012

Astrobotics contracted for polar exploration refinements

Astrobotic "Polaris" lunar rover design and the Icebreaker expedition
Astrobotic Technology has unveiled a NASA contract to determine whether its Polaris lunar rover design can deploy an ice-prospecting payload to the Moon.

The increasing likelihood of ice on the Moon might eventually yield water, oxygen, methane and rocket propellant to dramatically reduce the cost of deep space exploration.

"Astrobotic seeks the immense resources available on the Moon to both accelerate space exploration and improve life on Earth," said Astrobotics president David Gump. "The lunar path is near term. We intend a prospecting mission in 2015."

Astrobotic began development of a lunar excavation robot in 2009 under a series of NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts now total $795,000. The new NASA SBIR Phase 3 follow-on contract is designed for refinements for carrying NASA-supplied instruments and a drill to Cabeus or Shoemaker craters at high latitudes in the lunar south and other heavily shadowed places nearer the lunar north pole where hydrogen in the form of water ice appears to have been detected..

Instruments on-board India's Chandrayaan-1 orbiter and its Moon Impact Probe (MIP), and detailed surveys from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) along with the LCROSS impact at Cabeus have directly detected water, hydroxyl compounds, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and other volatiles. These resources went undiscovered during the Apollo expeditions which were concentrated near the Moon's equator.

An important next step is to discover the "ground truth" by directly drilling and measuring these ressources directly to see if they are sufficiently concentrated to be useful.

Propellants and other materials manufactured in place on the Moon could enable spacecraft for long voyages at greatly reduced costs or used for vehicles dispatched to Earth orbit more cheaply than the high cost of launching spacecraft and fuel out of Earth's gravity well. Water and oxygen would also be invaluable for life support, and other elements have immense value for energy, processes, fabrication and extended habitation.

When seeking resources from planetary destinations, the four-day travel time to reach the Moon enables early return on investment compared to more distant targets.

Astrobotic has reserved a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster to send its spacecraft and robotic explorer to the Moon. The Astrobotic payload will deliver a prospecting robot to the lunar surface with technology that autonomously avoids hazards such as boulders and craters. This navigation system was derived from technology developed at Carnegie Mellon University under the direction of Dr. William "Red" Whittaker, Astrobotic's founder. 

Dr. Whittaker won the DARPA Urban Challenge with a driverless car able to autonomously navigate city streets, avoiding other cars while obeying California traffic laws. The ability to detect hazards and automatically select alternative pathways is the core of Astrobotic's automatic lunar landing system.

Astrobotic has totaled $12 million in nine NASA lunar contracts covering issues from simulating lunar gravity on Earth to discovering ways to robotically explore the Moon's ravines and pits. Natural caverns on the Moon should provide vital shelter for both unmanned vehicles and human explorers, from ionizing radiation, a near constant infall of micrometeorites and the extreme temperature swings experienced directly on the lunar surface.

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