Ice prospecting robotic rover books a ticket for the Moon


April 24, 2012

Astrobotic Technology has received a NASA contract to determine if its Polaris rover robot could be used to prospect for ice on the Moon

Astrobotic Technology has received a NASA contract to determine if its Polaris rover robot could be used to prospect for ice on the Moon

While the Moon may or may not contain life forms, precious metals or even green cheese, recent satellite missions have indicated that it does nonetheless contain something that could prove quite valuable – water ice. NASA has estimated that at least 650 million tons (600 million tonnes) of the stuff could be deposited in craters near the Moon’s north pole alone. If mined, it could conceivably serve as a source of life support for future lunar bases, or it could be used to produce fuel for spacecraft stopping at a “lunar gas station.” Before any mining can happen, however, we need to learn more about the ice. That’s why NASA has contracted Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology to determine if its Polaris rover robot could be used for ice prospecting.

Astrobotic has been developing Polaris since 2009, funded by a series of NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts totaling US$795,000 – so far. The latest SBIR contract is aimed specifically at analyzing how the rover would need to be refined in order to carry a payload of ice-prospecting gear.

That gear would include a drill, which would be used to take core samples from the polar ice deposits. Onboard NASA-supplied scientific instruments would subsequently analyze the content of those samples – the satellite studies have determined that elements including water, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide should be present. The sampling would also be used to determine whether or not the ice deposits were concentrated enough to make mining feasible.

The entire ice prospecting payload would have to be within the rover’s carrying capacity limit of 80 kilograms (176 lbs).

Already, Astrobotic has reserved the use of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle to send a spacecraft containing Polaris on a trajectory toward the Moon, for a planned 2015 prospecting mission. That spacecraft should be able to deliver the robot safely to the lunar surface, using a system that allows it to automatically avoid landing hazards such as large rocks or craters – that system is based on technology developed by Astrobotic founder Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, which he previously used in a driverless car to win the DARPA Urban Challenge.

Once deployed, the 150-kilogram (331-lb) four-wheeled rover would use its three solar panels to generate 250 watts of power, allowing it to travel at speeds up to 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) per second. It could navigate autonomously using 3D laser scan mapping and stereo 3D HD cameras, although it could also be controlled from Earth via its S-band antenna – this would be capable of sending video and data, and receiving commands. The robot could cover rough terrain by raising its suspension, although when it came time to drill a core sample, it could lower that suspension in order to hunker itself down.

Polaris could have some robotic company on the Moon, however. Carnegie Mellon University (which Astrobotic is a spin-off company of) has been developing a lunar prospecting rover of its own, known as Scarab.

Source: Astrobotic Technology

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

NASA is an agency of the USA that could benefit humankind 1000 fold for dollars invested IMHO

Bill Bennett

Let's just hope this robot doesn't uncover a Black Monolith hidden under all of that ice.

Gene Jordan

Perhaps a silly question, but looking down the path abit, how much material can you remove from the moon before destabilizing its orbit and creating, oh, perhaps just a bit more problems on earth than is being solved??? Somewhere I heard that tides are a pretty crucial eco-service.



Easily 2% of the lunar mass could be removed without causing problems on earth. besides very little of the material mined on the moon will leave the moon, it will be used in the lunar colony. In the long run the moon is more likely to gain mass as the proceeds of asteroid mining feed the lunar colonies.


Combine this with the articles on asteroid mining and you have a cheap refueling station, like a truck stop in space.

Rich Mansfield

re; Rich Mansfield

Water is too valuable to toss wildly into space. Once the lunar colony is producing aluminum or other highly reactive material (other than hydrogen) and free oxygen or iron oxide then we can use lunar rocket fuel.


Why can't private companies do this research? I really don't trust gvt. or quasi-gvt. agencies (universities) to do this efficiently. Also, I don't want the moon to be a "public domain", divided up among gvts. If it is all private we will have a truly free new frontier. I know gvts. hate that and will do everything in their power to stop it but they are not all powerful and will eventually self destruct. Meanwhile, I don't want them to take our species with them (extinction). Time is running out. We must get off this planet and establish our independence by learning how to live in outer space. Eventually, earth will not sustain life. Our only hope is "out there". It's called "growing up and leaving home".

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