Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University researchers have completed structural assembly of the lunar landing craft that will deliver the Red Rover robot to the Moon in 2014. Weighing in at half a ton, the aluminum structure will now be shipped to Boeing Co. facilities in El Segundo, Calif., for so-called shake testing in order to confirm its soundness and its compatibility with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will serve as the launch vehicle.
Astrobotic plans to land the spacecraft, carrying both the robot and a commercial payload, on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility or on the Marius Hills next to a recently discovered "skylight" that leads down into a volcanic cave. The solar-powered Red Rover will broadcast high-definition video to Earth as the four-wheeled robot explores the lunar surface. Astrobotic aims to claim up to $36 million in awards from the Google Lunar X Prize, a NASA landing contract and a Florida launch bonus. The Google Lunar X Prize consists of a $30 million that will be awarded to the first privately funded team that sends a robot to the Moon. The robot must then travel 500 meters across the lunar surface and transmit video, images, and data back to Earth.
The team used engineering simulation software provided by ANSYS Inc. of Canonsburg, Pa., to calculate the lander's strength and stiffness. Pittsburgh-based Alcoa provided technical expertise, the aluminum used to create the structure of the lunar lander, and the fasteners that hold the lander together. Its largest component is a 10-foot-diameter, 1-inch-thick deck made from two slabs of solid aluminum joined via stir welding by Concurrent Technologies Corp. in Johnstown, Pa., and machined by Edgar Industries in New Kensington, Pa.
Assembly took place in the Planetary Robotics Lab in Carnegie Mellon's Gates and Hillman centers; a grant from the state of Pennsylvania enabled construction of the lab, which was finished in 2009.
When the craft is completed, the deck will support four spherical fuel tanks capable of carrying almost two tons of propellant. A single main engine controlling the lander's descent will sit below the deck and eight thrusters on the deck's periphery will provide stability. A cone-shaped structure atop the deck will connect to the 173-pound Red Rover. The lander also can carry up to 242 pounds of commercial payload and will have rechargeable batteries and solar panels capable of providing 500 watts of power during daylight.
In February, Astrobotic signed a contract with SpaceX to launch its mission on a Falcon 9 rocket, the same vehicle that NASA will use to send supplies to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 will throw the Astrobotic spacecraft into a lunar trajectory for a four-day cruise to the Moon. Navigation software, developed at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute so vehicles could drive themselves safely and reliably, will be used to guide the spacecraft to a soft and precise landing on the moon. Fold-down ramps will allow the rover to roll down either side of the lander, in case one side is blocked by a boulder or crater.
A unique aspect of the expedition is the inclusion of interdisciplinary arts projects created by students and faculty based in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts. CMU Professor Lowry Burgess is coordinating the historic Moon Arts project.
In addition to Carnegie Mellon, the mission is supported by industrial partners such as International Rectifier Corporation and corporate sponsors such as Caterpillar Inc.
For more information, visit CMU's Google Lunar X Prize website, http://www.cmu.edu/google-lunar-x/ , and the Astrobotic Technology website, http://www.astrobotictech.com/. The Robotics Institute is part of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science; follow the school on Twitter @SCSatCMU.