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 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 $599,900 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.