NASA Team Demonstrates Robot Technology For Moon Exploration

February 27, 2008
NASA Team Demonstrates Robot Technology For Moon Exploration
A Robot to Find Water and Oxygen on the Moon. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

During the 3rd Space Exploration Conference Feb. 26-28 in Denver, NASA will exhibit a robot rover equipped with a drill designed to find water and oxygen-rich soil on the moon.

"Resources are the key to sustainable outposts on the moon and Mars," said Bill Larson, deputy manager of the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) project. "It's too expensive to bring everything from Earth. This is the first step toward understanding the potential for lunar resources and developing the knowledge needed to extract them economically."

The engineering challenge was daunting. A robot rover designed for prospecting within lunar craters has to operate in continual darkness at extremely cold temperatures with little power. The moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, so a lightweight rover will have a difficult job resisting drilling forces and remaining stable. Lunar soil, known as regolith, is abrasive and compact, so if a drill strikes ice, it likely will have the consistency of concrete.

Meeting these challenges in one system took ingenuity and teamwork. Engineers demonstrated a drill capable of digging samples of regolith in Pittsburgh last December. The demonstration used a laser light camera to select a site for drilling then commanded the four-wheeled rover to lower the drill and collect three-foot samples of soil and rock.

"These are tasks that have never been done and are really difficult to do on the moon," said John Caruso, demonstration integration lead for ISRU and Human Robotics Systems at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

In 2008, the team plans to equip the rover with ISRU's Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction experiment, known as RESOLVE. Led by engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., the RESOLVE experiment package will add the ability to crush a regolith sample into small, uniform pieces and heat them.

The process will release gases deposited on the moon's surface during billions of years of exposure to the solar wind and bombardment by asteroids and comets. Hydrogen is used to draw oxygen out of iron oxides in the regolith to form water. The water then can be electrolyzed to split it back into pure hydrogen and oxygen, a process tested earlier this year by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"We're taking hardware from two different technology programs within NASA and combining them to demonstrate a capability that might be used on the moon," said Gerald Sanders, manager of the ISRU project. "And even if the exact technologies are not used on the moon, the lessons learned and the relationships formed will influence the next generation of hardware."

Engineers participated in the ground-based rover concept demonstration from four NASA centers, the Canadian Space Agency, the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology in Sudbury, Ontario, and Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh.

Carnegie Mellon was responsible for the robot's design and testing, and the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology built the drilling system. Glenn contributed the rover's power management system. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., built a system that navigates the rover in the dark. The Canadian Space Agency funded a Neptec camera that builds three-dimensional images of terrain using laser light.

All the elements together represent a collaboration of the Human Robotic Systems and ISRU projects at Johnson. These projects are part of the Exploration Technology Development Program, which is managed by NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Jupiter's moon Europa

Related Stories

Jupiter's moon Europa

September 30, 2015

Jupiter's four largest moons – aka. the Galilean moons, consisting of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are nothing if not fascinating. Ever since their discovery over four centuries ago, these moons have been a source ...

The moon

September 21, 2015

Look up in the night sky. On a clear night, if you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of the moon shining in all it's glory. As Earth's only satellite, the moon has orbited our planet for over three and a half billion years. ...

Slam dunk for Andreas in space controlling rover on ground

September 9, 2015

Putting a round peg in a round hole is not hard for someone standing next to it. But yesterday ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen did this while orbiting 400 km up aboard the International Space Station, remotely operating a ...

Canada dominates European Rover Challenge 2015

September 8, 2015

Canadian teams have dominated the second edition of the biggest European competition for Mars rovers that took place on Sept. 5-6 at the Regional Science-Technology Centre in Podzamcze, Poland. The Space Design Team of the ...

Recommended for you

Researchers find a new way to weigh a star

October 5, 2015

Researchers from the University of Southampton have developed a new method for measuring the mass of pulsars – highly magnetised rotating neutron stars formed from the remains of massive stars after they explode into supernovae.

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.