Robotic explorers may usher in lunar 'water rush'

Nov 18, 2012 by Steven Siceloff
Astrobotic Technology is developing a rover that operates on solar energy provided with side-facing panels. The solar panels are set vertically because the rover will operate at the lunar poles where the sun appears closer to the horizon. Artist concept courtesy of Astrobotic Technology

(Phys.org)—The American space program stands at the cusp of a "water rush" to the moon by several companies developing robotic prospectors for launch in the near future, according to a NASA scientist considering how to acquire and use water ice believed to be at the poles of the moon.

"This is like the gold rush that led to the settlement of California," said Phil Metzger, a physicist who leads the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, part of Kennedy's Surface Systems Office. "This is the rush."

Collecting the water, or at least showing it can be collected, is where the Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology comes in. The small company signed on in April for the third phase of a Small Business Innovative Research deal that continues research work to develop technologies NASA may need to harvest space resources in the future.

The company already is far along in its development of a rover that will work on its own. There is a deal in place with to launch a lander and rover on a Falcon 9 rocket in October 2015. Astrobotic is competing against several other companies for the Lunar X-Prize, an award worth up to $30 million funded by the company.

"Our intent is to land on the surface of the in October 2015 and find water," said John Thornton, president of Astrobotic.

Water already on asteroids, the moon or Martian moons represent a potential bonanza to NASA's exploration plans because the resource can be put to use in so many critical ways for astronauts venturing into deep space. Water, made of hydrogen and , can be turned into everything from breathing air to rocket fuel, not to mention the chance to filter it clean and drink it.

"Using these resources is the key to making space travel and habitation affordable and sustainable – we are starting to learn how to live on another ," said Rob Mueller, a senior technologist in Kennedy's Surface Systems Office.

"It's a really interesting resource when you start to think about how to explore beyond Earth and to use the resources that are already in our solar system," Thornton said. "This is the first step toward harnessing the resources in the solar system for exploration and sustained presence beyond Earth."

Not having to launch those resources from Earth would dramatically cut the price tag for exploration, plus lower the risks involved for the crews as they venture into deep space on missions to an asteroid or Mars.

"There have been studies that have shown you can reduce the mass of a mission to Mars by a factor of somewhere between three and five if you get propellants from the space environment rather than launching them all from Earth," Metzger said.

Thornton said the fact that a number of companies are developing plans and building machines to go to the moon shows that the potential is real.

"If we were doing something really big and no one else was trying to do it, then it might not be that big," Thornton said.

Apollo astronauts found no signs of water ice as they walked on the surface of the moon near the equator from 1969 to 1972, nor did the soil and rock samples they brought back to Earth. However, several probes within the last 15 years found one indication after another that frozen water not only exists on the moon, but is abundant.

"None of these have been ground-proofed yet," Metzger said. "We really need to get vehicles on the surface of the moon prospecting to characterize those deposits, like how do they vary spatially, how do they vary with depth?"

A big question now is whether water ice on the moon is a powder akin to what skiers experience on a mountainside or is it completely solid like an ice cube, or did water seep down between granules of soil and freeze to produce rocks as hard as granite. It wouldn't surprise lunar researchers to find cases of all three as robotic prospectors explore the surface.

"Our best guess is it's going to be the ice," Thornton said. "Probably small little pieces of ice mixed in with the regolith."

Of course, there's more to exploration than knowing what questions to ask. There's also the issue of inventing technology that allows a robotic landing cheaply enough that a private company can pay for it, developing a rover heavy enough to drill or dig into the moon's surface without lifting itself off the ground in the low gravity, not to mention the matter of keeping the rover warm and powered in areas of the moon that are shadowed and surviving the lunar night.

Metzger has been pleased with what he has seen from the company so far.

"They're doing excellent work, they're excavator is progressing well," Metzger said.

Thornton said exchanging a modular digging element on the rover for a drill and instruments was not particularly difficult, and is an option for prospecting on the moon.

"The excavation chassis is a perfect fit for a mission to the moon in terms of scale, mass and power. We took out the excavation part and dropped in a drill and instruments," Thornton said.

Astrobotic will test its rover and tools in the bin of simulated lunar soil that Kennedy uses for its annual Lunabotics Mining competition to prove the vehicle is up to the challenges of operating on the moon.

"You have to be able to go to the moon with some confidence that your vehicle's going to be able to get around and to dig in the soil," Thornton said.

While NASA is excited about the chances to use a new resource for deep space exploration, Astrobotic wants to use the robotic prospector to start mapping where the biggest water deposits are, along with other helpful chemicals, and then use the information to develop ways to extract the materials from the moon and put it to use. There are no plans to return water or other lunar samples to the Earth, Thornton said.

"The beauty of sending a robot is they don't demand a return ticket," Thornton said. "Once we know where the water is and what form it is in, we can develop systems to produce it in useable quantities. Water is a critical resource because you can drink it, breathe it and use it for rocket fuel."

There are a great many questions to answer before astronauts can count on the moon, an asteroid or Martian moons as fuel and air depots, but Metzger and Thornton said the answers are within reach.

"That's the reason to go, because we don't know the answer," Thornton said.

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ckid
5 / 5 (3) Nov 18, 2012
The Apollo missions may not have found evidence of water ice, but they did find trace water within in the samples collected. However, since the lunar dust made sealing the collection boxes difficult, the evidence of water was dismissed as a contaminant picked-up as the samples were transported back from the moon.
Urgelt
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 18, 2012
"'There have been studies that have shown you can reduce the mass of a mission to Mars by a factor of somewhere between three and five if you get propellants from the space environment rather than launching them all from Earth,' Metzger said."

Editors, this statement is false. Good reporting will correct erroneous assertions from subject-matter experts.

The mass of a mission to Mars won't be affected by where the propellants come from. What will be affected is the lift mass coming out of Earth's gravity well.

The project is a good one, but it's just a baby step. An excavator/prospector robot won't be capable of turning water ice into fuel packages and launching them to LEO or a LaGrange point.

There's a *lot* more engineering ahead.
nanotech_republika_pl
not rated yet Nov 18, 2012
Which team from Google Lunar X Prize is scheduled to launch first?

This old article from Feb 2011
http://www.thereg...signing/

talks about Astrobotic having plans to launch from Florida late in 2013.
nanotech_republika_pl
not rated yet Nov 18, 2012
And do you know if each team has to pay for the launch to the Moon? If so, they have to have means to invest pretty heavily for such a launch before they can scoop the $15 or $30 million prize.
Shakescene21
1.7 / 5 (3) Nov 18, 2012
All of these efforts intend to use robotic explorers instead of humans, because robots are cheaper, safer, and less complicated. These same arguments are even more valid for exploration to Mars and the Asteroid Belt. Since robots don't require large amounts of water and oxygen, it probably isn't necessary to obtain Lunar Water in the first place.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 19, 2012
Will the design shown in the image even work? From what I gather the water is trapped in parts of craters which are permanently in shadows. So photovoltaics won't power that thing. Or are they trying to power this via indirect sunlight?
Shakescene21
not rated yet Nov 19, 2012
@antialias. Good point. I hope they've thought this through. I'm not sure what you mean by "indirect sunlight". Perhaps there would be a second robot at the top of the crater, who would hold a mirror and reflect sunlight to the robot explorer in the crater?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 19, 2012
what you mean by "indirect sunlight"

The parts of the monnscape that are in direct sunlight are quite bright (judging from looking out my window at the Moon). So I would suspect that there is some 'second hand light' that would illuminate parts of the shadow (if all else fails there is still 'Earth-shine'). But I suspect the amount of energy one can get off that is significantly smaller than from panels pointed directly at the sun.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Nov 19, 2012
Will the design shown in the image even work? From what I gather the water is trapped in parts of craters which are permanently in shadows. So photovoltaics won't power that thing.


They have batteries. They will take short drives down into shallow craters, drill for samples, then go back to the sunlight for charging. It's only supposed to be a 10 day mission, unless it survives the 14 day lunar night, then it could be extended.

Think about how long you can run an electric golf cart between charging, and you get the idea. They just need to make sure they reserve enough power to get back into the light, and hope they don't get stuck.

I'm fairly confident that if anyone can get them to the moon, SpaceX is a good choice.
HopDavid
not rated yet Nov 19, 2012
"'There have been studies that have shown you can reduce the mass of a mission to Mars by a factor of somewhere between three and five if you get propellants from the space environment rather than launching them all from Earth,' Metzger said."

Editors, this statement is false. Good reporting will correct erroneous assertions from subject-matter experts.

The mass of a mission to Mars won't be affected by where the propellants come from. What will be affected is the lift mass coming out of Earth's gravity well.


Depends on how you define mission mass. I'd interpret it to mean Gross Lift Off Weight (GLOW) from earth's surface.

If you want to include all the propellant used in the mission mass, a propellant source in space could make quite a difference. For a given payload, a 15 km/s delta v budget takes more propellant than a 9 km/s delta V budget plus a 6 km/s delta V budget.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Nov 20, 2012
Depends on how you define mission mass. I'd interpret it to mean Gross Lift Off Weight (GLOW) from earth's surface


Depends on the mission too. If you want to do a return trip back from the moon, then having fuel on the moon means you don't have to take any of the return trip fuel to the moon. That's a huge savings.

Same goes for trips back and forth to Mars. If you can make fuel from Mars' ice caps, that's a huge savings. Every bit of fuel you don't take with you on the trip there allows you to make your fuel tanks smaller, etc. In the case of Mars, it might even be a make or break case, since it is excessively difficult to land anything heavy on Mars. Trying to land with the fuel you need to take back off again might not be possible with our current technology. Making fuel there MIGHT make a two way trip possible.
Egleton
1 / 5 (1) Nov 25, 2012
A brave new world where capitalists fund these ventures and not the people
Why the obsession with going down another gravity well? Is this some fetish? The gravity well on the moon is bad enough, but Mars?
Let me help. Getting out of a gravity well is a very expensive exercise. Popping in and out of them smacks of self-indulgence.
Use the delta v to go to low mass objects and use the material to build a habitat for your fellow man to escape the inevitable consequences of his exponential overshoot.
Sure it might be uncomfortable in the begining. It will even be lethal.
But consider the alternative. We are headed for 6C warming. We have made this orb uninhabitable. Time to go. UP