Electronic Design

Lunar Robot Takes Working Vacation In Hawaii

The fall is a wonderful time to visit Hawaii—even if you’re a robot, and especially if you’re training to go to the moon someday. Next month, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, NASA, and other organizations will test their four-wheeled Scarab lunar rover on the rocky slopes of Mauna Kea (see the figure). This dormant volcano, Hawaii’s highest mountain, will serve as a stand-in for the moon.

The experiment will simulate a lunar mission to extract water, hydrogen, oxygen, and other compounds that could potentially be mined by future explorers. Scarab will use its drill, developed by the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (Norcat), to obtain 1-m geologic cores at various sites on the volcano at an altitude around 9000 ft. On-board instruments developed by NASA then will chemically analyze these samples.

“People will not return to the moon for prolonged stays unless we can find resources there to help sustain them,” said William “Red” Whittaker, director of the Robotics Institute’s Field Robotics Center. “The technology being developed for Scarab will help locate whatever water or resources might exist on the moon as we seek out the raw materials for a new age of space exploration.”

Designed and built for NASA’s Human Systems Robot Program by Carnegie Mellon, Scarab is a terrestrial testbed for technologies that will be used to explore craters at the moon’s southern pole, where there is perpetual darkness and temperatures of –385°F. Considering the moon’s gravity, which is one-sixth that of earth’s, lightweight rovers also may have trouble resisting drilling forces and remaining stable.

Known as regolith, lunar soil is abrasive and compact. If a drill strikes ice, it likely will have the consistency of concrete. Scarab’s rocker-arm suspension enables it to negotiate sandy, rock-strewn inclines and lower its 5.5- by 3-ft body to the ground for drilling. It also weighs 400 kg (about 880 lb) and can operate on just 100 W.

The drill takes hours to cut a 1-m core into a dense layer of regolith. Another Norcat device then pulverizes the sample, about 1 ft at a time. The sample then goes into the Regolith Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) system, where it is heated to 900°C. A gas chromatograph then takes about 20 hours to analyze the entire 1-m core.

“Last year, we demonstrated Scarab’s unique maneuverability and its ability to navigate autonomously,” said David Wettergreen, associate research professor of robotics and project leader. “This year we reconfigured Scarab to accommodate a rock sample analysis payload developed by NASA. Now it is a complete robotic system for exploring the lunar poles and prospecting for resources.”

Carnegie Mellon University




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