Astrobotic Technology wins Moon mining award from NASA

NASA has selected Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University to develop a prototype robot for mining water and methane ices at the Moon’s poles. These volatiles can refuel astronauts’ spacecraft for their return trip to Earth, halving the cost of human Moon expeditions.

The $599,970 award will fund a two-year effort to build a robot able to dig into frozen lunar dirt despite the Moon’s one-sixth gravity, which leaves excavators much less traction, needed to push digging implements into the ground, than on Earth.

The robot employs an innovative bucket-wheel excavator mounted transverse to the direction of travel; pushback from digging would mainly push lightly sideways on the wheels. Standard blade or scraper approaches push the robot back along the wheels’ direction of travel working against already limited traction. The small digging edges of a bucket wheel also concentrate digging force narrowly compared to machines with wide blades or scrapers.

“Shipping heavy machines to the Moon is very costly, so the challenge we solve is excavating with a low-mass robot in the range of 70 to 300 pounds,” said Chris Skonieczny, leader of the Astrobotic project. “In addition to the transverse bucket wheel, our design uses composite materials for light weight and high-speed driving for greater productivity.”

The contract is a Phase II award in NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, following up a successful Phase I concept study. Astrobotic intends a commercial expedition to one of the Moon’s poles with the excavator when the concept is ready.

Last week Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon were awarded a NASA contract worth up to $10 million, for the team’s initial robotic expedition to the Moon in April 2013. This contract under the Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program will pay Astrobotic for data about how to land at a precise location, as well as how to avoid last-minute obstacles like boulders and small craters unseen from orbit. Astrobotic can collect $500,000 with the first hardware demonstration this winter, but the bulk of the funding will be awarded after its spacecraft lands.

Allies in the initial lunar mission are Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Aerojet, Scaled Composites, International Rectifier, Harmonic Drive LLC and Caterpillar Inc. These two contracts bring to five the awards that Astrobotic has received from NASA for lunar exploration topics.

Carnegie Mellon’s expertise has been demonstrated in dozens of cutting-edge projects, including winning the DARPA Urban Challenge with a Chevy Tahoe that autonomously drove through city traffic, planning its own path, avoiding obstacles and obeying the California traffic code. This sensing and software technology is being applied to a precision landing on the Moon.