NASA has selected Astrobotic Technology Inc. for a contract to develop robotic teams to explore extensive caves on Mars, the Moon, and other planetary destinations. Astrobotic will develop robots that cooperate to overcome the challenges of underground planetary missions: no light for solar power, radio communications blocked by rock, and mobility challenged by rough terrain.
Through a subcontract to Carnegie Mellon University, the research will build on multi-robot and subterranean robot research pioneered at CMU to improve capabilities and reduce risk of failure relative to single-robot missions.
Recent interest in exploration of planetary caves was prompted by the discovery of skylights on the Moon and on Mars through satellite imagery. The presence of these skylights, believed to be entrances to lava tubes, on two distinct planetary bodies suggests that these features can be found on other planets. It is unknown whether these systems are present as intricate ‘plumbing’ networks extending for hundreds of miles, or occur as isolated caverns of limited extent. Planetary caves could be ideal early shelters for robots and crews against the radiation, micrometeorites and extremely high and low temperatures of the lunar surface.
“Team exploration with robots is similar to a football team,” said Steve Huber, Astrobotic’s principal investigator for the contract. “One may call the plays, some do the heavy work, and others are sufficiently nimble to reach the farthest pockets of the cave.”
Selection by NASA will be followed by a negotiation period before the $125,000 contract is formally awarded to the company.
About Astrobotic Technology:
A spin-out from Carnegie Mellon University, Astrobotic delivers payloads and collects data for space agencies, aerospace corporations and academic researchers. The first expedition in 2014-15 will carry scientific instruments, engineering experiments and sample components that space agencies and companies want to test in the lunar environment. For corporate sponsors, it will deliver promotions that involve customers directly in the adventure of lunar exploration. An early goal is prospecting at the Moon’s poles for water and methane that can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for their return to Earth.