Drilling for Lunar Ice
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video
Polaris solar-powered rover
William "Red" Whittaker & Astrobotic team members
A Carnegie Mellon University spinoff — Astrobotic Technology Inc. — completed assembly of a full-size prototype of Polaris.
Polaris is a first of its kind solar-powered robot that will search for potentially rich deposits of water ice on the moon.
Observations by NASA and Indian spacecraft suggest that a substantial amount of water ice could exist at the lunar poles. That ice could be a source of water, fuel and oxygen for future expeditions.
Polaris can accommodate a drill to bore one meter into the lunar surface and can operate in lunar regions characterized by dark, long shadows and a sun that hugs the horizon. It has been developed for an expedition to the moon's northern pole that would launch from Cape Canaveral atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Astrobotic — led by CMU's William "Red" Whittaker — develops robotics technology for planetary missions.
The company is one of many that are spun out of the university's innovative environment, supported by the resources available to entrepreneurs through CMU's Greenlighting Startups initiative.
Astrobotic, in partnership with CMU, is also vying for the Google Lunar X Prize of more than $20 million.
Polaris is a flight prototype but has the same configuration as the rover that will eventually land on the moon. It includes a number of flight-worthy components, including wheels and chassis beams constructed of light, but tough composite materials.
This will enable Astrobotic team members to spend the coming months testing and improving the robot's computer vision, navigation and planning software, and software that can plot the rover's position on the moon within 10 feet.
"It is the first rover developed specifically for drilling lunar ice," said Whittaker, who is also founder of the Field Robotics Center at CMU's Robotics Institute. Other robots built by the Field Robotics Center have developed technologies necessary for lunar drilling, but none of them were ever meant to leave Earth.
"What Polaris does is bring those many ideas together into a rover configuration that is capable of going to the moon to find ice," Whittaker added.
To find the ice, a rover must operate as close to the dark poles as possible, but not so far that it can't use solar arrays for power, Whittaker said. Polaris has three large solar arrays, arranged vertically to capture light from low on the horizon.
The solar arrays will be capable of an average of 250 watts of electrical power.
Polaris also makes use of software, pioneered in CMU's NASA-funded Hyperion robot, that keeps track of the rover's position relative to the sun's rays to maximize solar energy and husbands battery power for use in the long shadows and dark regions found at the poles.
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Related Links: Read press release | Read Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article | Robotics Institute | School of Computer Science | Astrobotic Technology, Inc. | Google Lunar X Prize | Greenlighting Startups | Destination: Moon