Beyond Apollo: Moon Tech Takes a Giant Leap

Apr 09, 2009 by Dr. Tony Phillips
All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer--ATHLETE for short.

The flight computer onboard the Lunar Excursion Module, which landed on the Moon during the Apollo program, had a whopping 4 kilobytes of RAM and a 74 KB "hard drive." In places, the craft's outer skin was as thin as two sheets of aluminum foil.

It worked well enough for Apollo. Back then, stayed on the for only a few days at a time. But when NASA sends people back to the Moon starting around 2020, the plan will be much more ambitious — and the hardware is going to need a major upgrade.

Instead of staying for days, astronauts will be living on the Moon for months on end, and they will push the envelope of exploration farther than ever before. So NASA is developing a new generation of hardware to meet the needs of this new mission: intelligent robots, truck-sized lunar rovers with pressurized cabins, inflatable habitats, and more.

"If we want to stay on the Moon for longer, then we have to develop the equipment necessary to survive in that environment," says Frank Peri, director of NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP).

During the Apollo era, robotic sidekicks existed only in the realm of science fiction. If astronauts needed to move some heavy equipment, they had to pick it up themselves; if they wanted to investigate a crater, they couldn't send in a robot for a first look. Semi-autonomous robots being developed by ETDP will lower risks by helping astronauts with such tasks.

A six-legged, spider-like robot called ATHLETE (short for All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) will handle the heavy lifting. "It's basically a big flatbed truck, so you can put things on it to move them around," Peri says. A prototype built at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has wheels on the end of each leg. That way, it can roll under the lander module, for example, lift it up, and roll it to another location -- stepping over boulders that might lie in the way. Astronauts could also replace the wheel on one or more legs with drills or other tools so that ATHLETE can help them with other maintenance or exploration tasks.

ATHLETE, along with smaller robots being developed by ETDP as scouts, will have the CPU power it takes to respond to vocal and gestural cues from the astronauts, as well as the capability to be remotely controlled from a distance. Four kilobytes of RAM will not be enough for these brainy machines.

When astronauts do venture out across the lunar surface themselves, they'll have a much better ride than the old Apollo moonbuggy. "If you've seen those videos of astronauts driving the Apollo rover on the Moon, you've seen that the ride was pretty harsh," Peri says. If that rover resembled a dune buggy, the new rover being developed by ETDP will be more like an RV. It will have an enclosed cabin complete with sleeping space so that astronauts can rest during long excursions. Bubble-shaped windows will let explorers observe the lunar surface up close without leaving the safety of the vehicle.

Sometimes, though, nothing can replace getting out and doing some hands-on exploration. Spacesuits attached to the outside of rover will make it easy for astronauts to slide directly into the suits from the comfort of the cabin -- no airlock required. And those spacesuits will be able to handle much longer exposure to abrasive lunar dust than Apollo suits could. "Those Apollo suits were practically trash by the time the three days were up," Peri says. "These new suits will have to last in that harsh environment for months or years."

When they return to base, these future lunar explorers will need a home that can provide air, water, food, and protection from harmful radiation for months. The Apollo lander's thin skin wouldn't shield enough of the radiation that pervades space to protect astronauts' health for that long. And the astronauts are going to need much larger power systems, life-support equipment, and living and working spaces to be able to fulfill their mission.

So EDTP is developing inflatable habitats that will balloon up to full size after arriving on the Moon, as well as techniques to make durable materials out of the lunar regolith (lunar soil). Surrounding the habitat with thick layers of a regolith-based material would provide excellent radiation shielding for the occupants inside.

It's all quite a tall order. But the payoff for developing these technologies now will be more than just a long-term human presence on the Moon. While the hardware required for living on the Moon for months is very different from that needed by the Apollo program, it's very similar to the hardware needed to live someplace else:

Mars.

Source: Science@NASA, by Dr. Tony Phillips

Explore further: Origin of 'theta aurora'—long-standing space mystery—revealed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Lunar Outpost Plans Taking Shape

Oct 01, 2007

NASA's blueprints for an outpost on the moon are shaping up. The agency's Lunar Architecture Team has been hard at work, looking at concepts for habitation, rovers, and space suits.

NASA listens to Apollo-era scientists

Jul 10, 2007

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the first moon landing by reuniting retired scientists.

NASA Ames Leads Robotic Lunar Exploration Program

Nov 17, 2005

On Monday, the 36th anniversary of Apollo 12, the second manned lunar landing, NASA announced that it has assigned management of its Robotic Lunar Exploration Program to NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. ...

NASA honors Apollo moon walker Buzz Aldrin

Mar 17, 2006

NASA will honor former astronaut Buzz Aldrin for his involvement in the U.S. space program with the presentation of the Ambassador of Exploration Award.

Recommended for you

NASA considers possibilities for manned mission to Venus

3 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate has issued a report outlining a possible way for humans to visit Venus, rather than Mars—by hovering in the atmosphere instead of landing on ...

User comments : 12

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

zbarlici
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2009
Yeah... but what precautions will they take to reduce the risk of an athlete`s foot infection?
ler177
5 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2009
Yeah... but what precautions will they take to reduce the risk of an athlete`s foot infection?




What's the astronaut equivalent of athlete's foot?



Mistletoe :)
el_gramador
1 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2009
I'm honestly more worried about the effects of 1/3 gravity on the human body after long-term exposure on the moon. If anything it won't be as bad as floating around in space, but it will make it much more difficult to return to earth with a degraded body. Unless of course we somehow create gravity generators like I'm expecting we will.
Wealth
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2009
You're about to become twice as worried, because it's 1/6 Earth's gravity on the moon.
Suzu
3 / 5 (2) Apr 10, 2009
I'm honestly more worried about the effects of 1/3 gravity on the human body after long-term exposure on the moon. If anything it won't be as bad as floating around in space, but it will make it much more difficult to return to earth with a degraded body. Unless of course we somehow create gravity generators like I'm expecting we will.


Gravity control is not even a theory yet. How do you expect us to make gravity generators anytime within couple of thousands of years? I sure don't have much hope.
LuckyBrandon
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2009
actually "gravity control" as you put it is well known....you sure you arent thinking of anti-gravity (weve got one of them too)?
easiest way to explain.....ever been on the starship ride that just spins around and around and basically sucks your ass onto the wall....gravity control, and the same concept theyd use up in space most likely...
jonnyboy
2 / 5 (4) Apr 10, 2009
Who comes up with these acronyms?

Absolutely brilliant, I tell you, brilliant!!

and Wealth, I do believe that the studies have shown that the damage is a square function so el_gramador should be four times as worried!
jonnyboy
2 / 5 (4) Apr 10, 2009
actually "gravity control" as you put it is well known....you sure you arent thinking of anti-gravity (weve got one of them too)?



easiest way to explain.....ever been on the starship ride that just spins around and around and basically sucks your ass onto the wall....gravity control, and the same concept theyd use up in space most likely...






I think the term you are looking for is "centrifugal force"(not gravity control) and no one has proved that the bodies reaction to C.F. is the same as the bodies reaction to gravity
Suzu
5 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2009
actually "gravity control" as you put it is well known....you sure you arent thinking of anti-gravity (weve got one of them too)?

easiest way to explain.....ever been on the starship ride that just spins around and around and basically sucks your ass onto the wall....gravity control, and the same concept theyd use up in space most likely...


Uhh, centrifugal force is not gravity control, sorry to be a downer. And we don't have Anti-Gravity, sorry to dash your hopes. As much as I would want for anti gravity to be a current reality. For now it's a mere speculation.
Edylc
1 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2009
My guess is they will come up with a way to do it using magnetism. Or a way around it. I don't know so much about it, but I know it's possible to take anything and magnetize it. Make a strawberry float around and things of that nature. So theoretically, once they really have it down, they could simulate gravity using advanced magnetism. But how the human body would react to that as far as I know is unknown. I've heard the theory a lot that supposedly by 2025 we will be entering the time where ground breaking advancements in science and technology will be discovered almost every minute. I don't like to rule anything out, so I've got my hopes up.
Corvidae
not rated yet Apr 12, 2009
The long term solution is going to be further down the road. To use a centrifuge to imitate gravity you have to keep the RPM low, otherwise you constantly get dizzy. Which means you need a big arc to create 1g at low RPM. Last I read they were looking at a half mile radius for the best trade off. Of course they were talking about a space station in orbit instead of on a planet. The moons gravity would let you spin slower in a smaller circle while still hitting 1g.

Which still leaves a whole LOT of digging to put something that large under enough moon rock to block radiation and micro meteors. It may not be that bad though, we'll be digging a lot anyway since I'm figuring this whole 'inflatable' thing is going to go up in smoke after the first meteor shower. So what if it reseals the holes after a small hit. Resealing the holes in the astronauts is a bigger problem.
mahalo1984
not rated yet Apr 12, 2009
http://en.wikiped..._gravity
http://en.wikiped...to_space
http://en.wikiped..._records

The world is at your fingertips, don't be afraid to research and fact check ladies and gentleman. I think that if Sergei Krikalev can spend 2.2 years in weightless orbit and survive, the reduced gravity of the moon is the least of our worries as we attempt to colonize.

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.