Researchers show small robots can prepare lunar surface for NASA outpost

February 25, 2009
An illustration of the proposed robot design.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Small robots the size of riding mowers could prepare a safe landing site for NASA's Moon outpost, according to a NASA-sponsored study prepared by Astrobotic Technology Inc. with technical assistance from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon researchers analyzed mission requirements and developed the design for an innovative new type of small lunar robot under contract from NASA's Lunar Surface Systems group.

The results will be presented Friday in Washington, D.C., at a NASA Lunar Surface Systems conference co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Space Enterprise Council.

"NASA faces a challenge in planning the layout for its outpost, which is expected to begin operations in 2020," said William "Red" Whittaker, chairman and chief technical officer of Astrobotic and a Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics. "For efficient cargo transfer, the landing site needs to be close to the outpost's crew quarters and laboratories. Each rocket landing and takeoff, however, will accelerate lunar grit outwards from the pad. With no atmosphere to slow it down, the dry soil would sandblast the outpost."

The research examined two potential solutions: 1) construction of a berm around the landing site, and 2) creation of a hard-surface landing pad using indigenous materials.

In the first solution, researchers found that two rovers weighing 330 pounds each would take less than six months to build a berm around a landing site to block the sandblasting effect. A berm 8.5 feet tall in a 160-foot semi-circle would require moving 2.6 million pounds of lunar dirt. Robots this size can be sent to NASA's planned polar outpost site in advance of human expeditions. Astrobotic Technology Inc. has proposed that landing site preparation be provided by commercial ventures.

In the second solution, researchers showed how small robots could comb the lunar soil for rocks, gathering them to pave a durable grit-free landing pad, said John Kohut, Astrobotic's chief executive officer. "This might reduce the need to build protective berms. To discern the best approach, early robotic scouting missions need to gather on-site information about the soil's cohesion levels and whether rocks and gravel of the right size can be found at the site."

Also at Carnegie Mellon, Whittaker is directing the development of Astrobotic's first lunar robot, which has been undergoing field trials for several months. The company's first mission, to win the $20 million Google Lunar X prize by visiting the Apollo 11 landing site and transmitting high-definition video to Earth, is set for December 2010.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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13 comments

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zevkirsh
not rated yet Feb 25, 2009
instead of just shoveling regolith,....notorious for its ionized sticky destructive properties. why not make it into bricks?
the japanese invented this amazing machine for turning snow into ice. why not use it turn regolith into bricks, suitable for building, roads, runways, and buildings.
http://dvice.com/...uses.php
Szkeptik
not rated yet Feb 25, 2009
zevkirsh- Do you have any evidence that regolith would be suitable for that?
dirk_bruere
1 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2009
All academic as the saying goes. We all know that NASA is not going anywhere.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Feb 25, 2009
How will they build a durable landing pad out of rocks? Will they bring water to mix with dirt and rocks to make concrete? Or will they use some other adhesive...? Could be tricky to mix and cure anything like concrete under lunar conditions (unless they plan to cure it in a pressurized oven, essentially making bricks...)
Flakk
not rated yet Feb 25, 2009
I'd have to agree with Dirk. NASA is too interested in looking at dirt and shooting probes into space. I have serious doubts that a base is getting put on the moon in 20, 40 or even 100 years.

And Mars? Alway has been and always will be just a nice setting for SciFi movies.
Damon_Hastings
4 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2009
And Mars? Alway has been and always will be just a nice setting for SciFi movies.


Always is a long, long time. ;-)

That said, I've never been entirely clear on the scientific value of a lunar base over, say, the ISS. Certainly it's far more expensive -- will its scientific value be proportionately greater as well? Or are we after something other than science here? I suppose the publicity value of a lunar base would be huge, which could translate into additional scientific research dollars...
nilbud
1 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2009
A Lunar base would allow the construction of ships and with no atmosphere and 1/6th Earth gravity rail gun launchers could get the ships into space easily enough and with huge amounts of reaction mass aboard. Fusion reactors powered by H3 would allow for transmutation of elements. Massive solar farms and nanomaterials would be a low power alternative. Also digging in underground would provide shielding against radiation and meteor showers. It's only a couple of days travel away instead of months.
Adriab
not rated yet Feb 26, 2009
Another benefit (and i wish i could find the article to give you all a link) from having no atmosphere is telescopes would work pretty well. There was some research done where a compount was introduced to some lunar regolith, turning it into the moon's equivalent to cement.
If you can make cement, you can make bricks. Then those bricks can be built into a large parabolic dish structure. A thin layer of aluminum can be deposited onto the surface, and polished into a mirror.

Next add a collector and you have yourself a telescope. Granted, there are many issues to work out, like how to aim it an so forth, but the idea is worth thinking through.
El_Nose
not rated yet Feb 26, 2009
in responce to nilbud

why work in a gravity constraint -- granted there may be useful applications for biotech, and chemical engineering in a micro gravity environment but lets face it the best place for "ship construction" is in space.

But what type of ship construction are you referring to.. if you mean anything resembling our current fleet then an earth setting is best.. but we are far far far from ever completing an enterprise -- realisticly if you need to do a ship repair, or a logistic hub for travel do it in space at a station large enough to handle it if you want interesting chemistry, our a platform for industry do it on the moon.

menkaur
1 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2009
cool stuff....
i'd like to be a part of developing a system to coordinate eternal armies of robots to accomplish diverse tasks
Flakk
not rated yet Feb 27, 2009
And Mars? Alway has been and always will be just a nice setting for SciFi movies.


Always is a long, long time. ;-)

That said, I've never been entirely clear on the scientific value of a lunar base over, say, the ISS. Certainly it's far more expensive -- will its scientific value be proportionately greater as well? Or are we after something other than science here? I suppose the publicity value of a lunar base would be huge, which could translate into additional scientific research dollars...


Expense, politics, and scientific value asside. It seems to me that NASA has too much going on to deal with human space flight in the focused manner nessisary to put a human on the moon. let alone construction projects there.

Thats really the only reason I say "always and never". NASA is too busy with probes, drift rocks, dirt, and National Geographic covers to put another person on the moon for a long time.

I dearly hope I'm wrong but I get the feeling NASA's best days are behind it.
superhuman
1 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2009
Do NASA really has to spend millions to add yet another crater to the Moon?
nilbud
1 / 5 (1) Mar 06, 2009
Make spaceships out of concrete. Slap them onto a sled on rails. Wait until night time for the superconducting magnets to chill out then with no atmosphere getting the ship up to a decent launch speed is just a matter of electrical power. Assembling stuff in space means it all has to come up the gravity well from Earth, manufacturing it on the moon the gravity is less and no atmosphere is quite handy when slinging stuff into space.

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