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Innovation: Mining on the Moon

Check out this solar-powered rover designed to prospect for ice on the moon.
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In the past three years, NASA satellites have discovered evidence of ice on the poles of the moon. That's a huge boon for future space missions, because lunar ice could be a source of water, oxygen, and fuel. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology recently unveiled a prototype of a solar-powered lunar rover, Polaris, designed to locate ice on the north pole of the moon and extract samples for analysis. The 300-pound vehicleis made of light, tough composite materials and can accommodate a drill and science instruments weighing up to 176 pounds. William ("Red") Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University, founded Astrobotic in 2008. Since then, the company has received $3.6 million in contracts from NASA; it is a front-runner for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will be awarded to the first team to land a privately developed robot on the moon. Astrobotic plans to send Polaris to the moon in October 2015 using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the same rocketused to complete a recent cargo run to the International Space Station.

Solar panels
Navigation software keeps the three panels on the sides and back of the rover pointed at the sun. The rover, which measures 8 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 5.5 feet tall, stores some solar energy in batteries, allowing it to maintain power while moving through shadows.

Wheels
The rover's wheels are made of carbon fiber and Kevlar and capped with steel on traction areas to prevent abrasions. When one wheel is lifted, the wheel on the opposing corner lowers, which helps the rover maintain full contact with uneven terrain. Each wheel contains a hub motor.

Guidance and navigation system
Pannable stereo cameras guide Polaris and record 3-D high-definition video, which can be transmitted to Earth using the dish antenna. A laser-based sensor between the cameras helps the rover avoid hazards in shadows, much like radar.

Drill
A retractable 3-foot-long drill will extract samples from the moon's surface and deposit them in chemical analysis equipment capable of detecting water.

Multilayer insulation
Coated Mylar reflects light and heat away from the craft during the day and keeps it warm in the shadows.

IMAGE: Illustration by Peter Crowther
Last updated: Dec 24, 2012

DAVID H. FREEDMAN

A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.




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