Astrobotic Initiates Testing For Planetary Cave Exploration

Planetary caverns and tunnels can provide shelter from micrometeorites, radiation, and thermal extremes for human and robotic explorers. They may be the best hope for habitation on the Moon. They could be the best place on Mars to find life. They can provide a window into a planet’s past geology, climate, and even biology. Recently discovered skylights, formed by partial cave ceiling collapse, provide access to intriguing but unknown sub-surface voids. “Skylights are gateways to wonders of exploration, science and resources that await beneath planetary surfaces”, said Red Whittaker, Astrobotic CEO. “Robots are our access to those new worlds.”

In a phase I study for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, Astrobotic developed several mission concepts and investigated key technologies for exploring planetary caves. In phase II, Astrobotic is detailing a mission concept for entering a planetary cave through a skylight, and exploring and modeling the interior using its prototype Tyrobot.

On September 7th 2013, the Astrobotic team conducted a full deployment field test of Tyrobot in an open pit mine in Somerset. The mine served as an analog environment to simulate conditions that Tyrobot might encounter on other planets.

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The Tyrobot system uses a trolley to traverse along a cable suspended over the pit. The trolley controls the raising and lowering of a sensor package.

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The sensor package has independent power and communications, and logs data from its laser range finder, inertial measurement unit, and fisheye camera.

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Those data will be stitched together to create a 3D model of the pit’s interior.

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Detailed modeling of planetary pits and caves can reveal geological insights about mineral composition and pit formation. Such models are also valuable for informing subsequent robotic and human missions to explore the intriguing but perilous terrain of pits and caves.

Photos below depict a mission concept to enter and explore a skylight on the Moon using Tyrobot.

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