Forty years after Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, plans are afoot to revisit the site to see how the remains have stood up to four decades of radiation and micrometeorite bombardment. One vehicle that may well be used for this expedition is the third prototype lunar robot from Lunar X Prize entrant Astrobotic. The rover is one tough nut - it's designed to survive the blistering heat of the lunar ‘noontime extreme’, which sees temperatures reach 270 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as the minus 240 degree Fahrenheit temperatures of the lunar night.
The project is headed by Dr William ‘Red’ Whittaker, the Carnegie Mellon robotics professor whose name will be familair to Gizmag readers following his success in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.
In order to achieve its incredible resilience to extreme temperature the machine utilizes solar panels for power and distributes excess heat by radiating it from a ‘cool side’, which would point away from the sun, into the black of space. The rover’s asymmetrical shape makes this possible and to reduce the risk of damage, motors which power chain-drive mechanisms, much like those used on a bicycle, are housed inside the body for protection against heat and lunar dust. Extensive tests have already been completed inside vacuum chambers and tailored composite structures that are key to the design have been subjected to thermal and stress tests to best simulate typical conditions.
Atop the robot will be two stereo HD cameras, a telephoto camera and antenna dome to send high resolution images and audio back to Earth.
Though not a requirement of the official Lunar X challenge, the rover will also attempt to survive the minus 240 degree Fahrenheit temperatures of the freezing lunar night, with the key here in ensuring that the lithium ion batteries on-board are still able to function after two weeks of cryogenic cold.
Regardless of whether it wins the X- Prize, the lunar robot is scheduled to begin its mission in May 2011 with a visit to the Apollo 11 site to begin collecting data. A lunar landing platform is also under development and the launch from Earth will rely on already-established commercial launch vehicles.