Science & Technology
7:37 pm
Mon October 8, 2012

CMU Robot Will Mine the Moon in 2015

Ten years ago, the theory that there is water on the moon was not widely believed in the scientific community. Now, after a 2010 NASA discovery of ice in the moon's polar regions, Carnegie Mellon University and a spinoff company have designed a robot to gather the water -- and whatever else it can find in the lunar soil.

The new Polaris robot, unveiled Monday as a prototype by CMU and the company Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, would be the first rover specifically designed to drill for lunar ice.  The ice is believed to be ten inches below the dusty surface of the moon's polar regions.

In October 2015, the robot has a date with a SpaceX Falcon 9 shuttle. The launch vehicle will drop a landing craft holding the robot into lunar orbit, whereupon the rover can touch down near the moon's northern pole and drill into the surface.  Equipment on board will be used to determine the exact makeup of lunar soil a meter below the surface. Astrobotic is hoping the mission will win the company the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize.

Mining the Icy Sands of the Moon

Astrobotic CEO William "Red" Whittaker compared the ice to "frozen beach sand" in which particles of water mix freely with other compounds. For example, Whittaker said he expects to find plenty of ammonia and methane as well.

"This could be the great beginning of resource utilization beyond planet Earth," said Whittaker. "Although this incorporates the pursuit of a prize and involves scientific discovery, it has that deep drive of enterprise."

The Polaris lunar prospecting mission could be the first step toward mining celestial bodies across the solar system, according to Astrobotic President John Thornton. He said that may be one of the most lucrative industries of the near future.

"There's a rock that's orbiting our sun right now that's twenty kilometers across. That one rock has more metal in it than humankind has ever mined," said Thornton. "So, if you imagine what's possible there, you send robots there to mine that material and bring it back home — that's potentially trillions of dollars of added value to our economy."

Thornton said the ability to use the water and gases indigenous to the moon also would make the idea of an inhabitable lunar outpost more realistic.

"You can drink water. If you're an astronaut, you can breathe it. You can also split it and turn it into rocket fuel," said Thornton. "So, it's a really important resource in thinking about how to use planets and other bodies beyond Earth in exploring beyond, even further into our solar system."

Nuts and Bolts

Polaris is about eight feet long, seven feet wide and more than five feet tall. The robot weighs in at 330 pounds, with enough space to store 70 pounds of lunar soil for analysis. However, given lighter lunar gravity, Polaris would weigh just 67 pounds with a full payload on the moon. It's made of lightweight composite materials that are stronger than steel, and it's powered by arrays of solar panels on three of its faces.

The Polaris mission is scheduled to last just one day — one lunar day, that is, equivalent to a full fortnight here on Earth. If the robot's battery survives the dark, frigid lunar night, though, the mission could be extended indefinitely.