October 16, 2008 Plans are afoot to have humans back on the moon by 2020, but if we want to make it more than just a brief visit and truly begin to colonize the solar system, the challenge will be to find ways to extract and exploit local resources that can help sustain a lunar outpost. That's where the Scarab comes in. The four-wheel, 880-pound lunar prospecting robot designed by Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute - and soon to be field tested by NASA on the slopes of a dormant volcano in Hawaii - is equipped to drill and collect three-foot samples of soil and rock while operating in one of the harshest environments imaginable - the moon's southern pole. The rover will act as a terrestrial testbed for the development of technologies that it's hoped can be used to find hydrogen, oxygen and possible even water that could be mined from beneath the moon's surface.
The 5 1/2-foot by 3-foot all-terrain vehicle has a highly dynamic suspension set-up that enables it negotiate rocky landscapes and traverse craters. It can also spread its wheels and place maximum downforce on its centrally located drill to penetrate the dense, rocky lunar soil (called regolith).
The drill assembly is built by the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology Inc. (Norcat) in Ontario. It works in tandem with another Norcat device which crushes the rock and soil to obtain samples that will then be heated to 900 degrees Celsius (1652 degrees Fahrenheit) so that the gases can be analyzed. An experimant known as the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) is being developed by NASA's In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) program for this part of the process.
Researchers are targeting the southern polar regions because probes have detected concentrations of hydrogen in that area. For the Scarab project this means finding a way to operate in total darkness at minus 385 degrees Fahrenheit (around -232 degrees Celsius) and without a communications link back to Earth. To meet these challenges the robot will be autonomous and have laser scanners that allow it to see in the dark. As solar energy is not an option, a radioactive power source is being developed that will deliver the tiny amount of power (about 100 watts) needed for the rover to maintain slow movement and keep its computer systems alive.
"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."
NASA and other organizations will test Scarab from November 1-13 at Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano ans also Hawaii's highest mountain. If the tests prove successful the design will be awarded a contract from NASA to go the next step and, well, reach for the moon.
"People will not return to the moon for prolonged stays unless we can find resources there to help sustain them," said University Professor 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 exploration."