NASA to demonstrate moon rover's vital features

NASA will this week demonstrate its lunar robot rover equipped with a drill designed to find water and oxygen-rich soil on the moon.

NASA said the engineering challenge of building such as drilling system was daunting because a robot rover designed for prospecting within lunar craters has to operate in continual darkness at extremely cold temperatures with little power. The moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, so a lightweight rover will have a difficult job resisting drilling forces and remaining stable.

Lunar soil, known as regolith, is abrasive and compact, so if a drill strikes ice, it likely will have the consistency of concrete, according to NASA's In-Situ Resource Utilization project. NASA's In-Situ Resource Utilization group works to establish, evaluate and assess the in situ resources available on the moon and Mars and the technologies needed to utilize and exploit these resources. These research and technology development areas will focus on technologies necessary to extract materials such as O2, H2O, N2, and He, needed for human life-support systems, NASA said.

Engineers demonstrated a drill capable of digging samples of regolith in Pittsburgh last December. The demonstration used a laser light camera to select a site for drilling then commanded the four-wheeled rover to lower the drill and collect three-foot samples of soil and rock.

Ultimately the process will release gases deposited on the moon's surface during billions of years of exposure to the solar wind and bombardment by asteroids and comets. Hydrogen is used to draw oxygen out of iron oxides in the regolith to form water. The water then can be electrolyzed to split it back into pure hydrogen and oxygen, a process tested earlier this year by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In 2008, the team plans to equip the rover with ISRU's Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction experiment, known as RESOLVE. The RESOLVE experiment package will add the ability to crush a regolith sample into small, uniform pieces and heat them, NASA said in a release.

The project is just one demonstration of the collaboration NASA is utilizing to bring together its next moon shot. For example, Carnegie Mellon was responsible for the robot's design and testing, and the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology built the drilling system. NASA's Glenn Research Center contributed the rover's power management system. NASA's Ames Research Center built a system that navigates the rover in the dark. The Canadian Space Agency funded a Neptec camera that builds three-dimensional images of terrain using laser light, NASA said. At this time the rover is slated to operate with a prototype lunar truck also under development, according to the NASA Web site.

The current prototype has 6 independently controlled and powered wheels ala NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. On this rover, all six wheels can pivot individually in any direction, regardless of where any other wheel points. The vehicle also features "crab steering" that will let it drive into the craters of the moon. If a slope is too steep to drive down safely, the vehicle could drive sideways instead. The all-wheels, all-ways steering also could come in handy when unloading and docking payloads or plugging into a habitat for recharging, NASA said.

NASA also notes that some, all or none of these features may be selected to be in the design of a rover that eventually goes to the moon. NASA's lunar architects currently envision pressurized rovers that would travel in pairs, two astronauts in each rover. The new prototype vehicle is meant to provide ideas as those future designs are developed.

NASA says it wants to put people on the moon by 2020.

And speaking of the moon landing, NASA also said today it has obtained the highest resolution terrain mapping to date of the moon's rugged south polar region, with a resolution to 20 meters per pixel. Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, collected the data using the facility's Goldstone Solar System Radar located in California's Mojave Desert. The imagery generated by the data has been incorporated into animation depicting the descent to the lunar surface of a future human lunar lander and a flyover of Shackleton Crater. The mapping data collected indicate that the region of the moon's south pole near Shackleton Crater is much more rugged than previously understood. The Shackleton area is considered a candidate landing site for a future mission to the moon.

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