PITTSBURGH, PA – August 23, 2010 – Astrobotic Technology, a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) spin-off company has announced that Caterpillar Inc. will be a sponsor its first robotic expedition to the lunar surface. The initial Astrobotic mission will revisit the Apollo 11 site in April 2013 with a five-foot tall, 160-lb. robot broadcasting 3D high-definition video. The mission will carry payloads to the Moon and convey the experience to the world via Internet video access.
The expedition also will claim a financial trifecta: up to $24 million in the Google Lunar X Prize, a $10 million data sale to NASA, and Florida’s $2 million bonus for launching from that state.
In 2007 Caterpillar sponsored Carnegie Mellon’s winning machine in the Urban Challenge, a competition for autonomous vehicles conducted by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The sensors and code base developed for this race of driverless cars through city traffic are evolving into the guidance and control for the spacecraft that will take Astrobotic’s robot to the lunar surface.
“Caterpillar has enjoyed a successful relationship with Carnegie Mellon University over the last two decades. Our sponsorship of CMU’s winning machine in the 2007 Urban Challenge has served as a technology foundation for further work to automate our large mining trucks,” said Eric Reiners, Caterpillar Automation Systems Manager. “Our customers are moving to more remote and harsh environments. This drives the need for further development of autonomous and remote operation of equipment. We look forward to applying the technology developed and lessons learned from the Astrobotic expedition toward our own Cat equipment.”
Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic have expended more than $3 million creating mission designs and prototype Moon robots engineered to operate during extreme heat — soil temperatures at the lunar equator hit 224 degrees F at noon.
“Operating during the Moon’s daytime heat is the central engineering challenge for lunar robots, and we will take advantage of Caterpillar’s experience with rugged electronics for harsh environments,” said Dr. Red Whittaker, director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center and founder of Astrobotic Technology.
Caterpillar’s experience in autonomous mining and construction machinery also will assist with learning how to “live off the land” using lunar resources. For example, polar ice deposits can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for their return to Earth, doubling their productivity. New NASA research shows that some of the polar ice (a mix of water, methane and other compounds) is covered by an insulating layer of dry soil that robotic excavators can remove to access the volatiles.
“Caterpillar makes sustainable progress possible by enabling infrastructure development and resource utilization on every continent on Earth. It only makes sense we would be involved expanding our efforts to the 8th continent, the Moon,” said Reiners.
Astrobotic has just completed the first phase of a NASA contract to design lightweight robotic excavators for this task (see http://astrobotic.com/activities/lunar-construction-research-completed).