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Roaming robot may explore mysterious Moon caverns

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#1 Asrokhel



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Posted 20 November 2012 - 22:15

Spelunking rover could scout sites for lunar bases.

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William Whittaker's cave-crawling robot could one day explore lunar caverns.

William 'Red' Whittaker often spends his Sundays lowering a robot into a recently blown up coal mine pit near his cattle ranch in Pennsylvania (see video). By 2015, he hopes that his robot, or something like it, will be rappelling down a much deeper hole, on the Moon.

The hole was discovered three years ago when Japanese researchers published images from the satellite SELENE1, but spacecraft orbiting the Moon have been unable to see into its shadowy recesses. A robot might be able to “go where the Sun doesn't shine”, and send back the first-ever look beneath the Moon's skin, Whittaker told attendees at a meeting of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme in Hampton, Virginia, this week.

“This is authentic exploration, this is the real deal,” says Whittaker, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose robots have descended into an Alaskan volcano and helped to clean up the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. “This is really going where none have gone before.”

Over the next two years, the NIAC programme will spend about US$500,000 developing Whittaker's creations. The prototype he tested at the coal mine could be lowered into the Moon pit to check the walls for openings. But a more ambitious approach would be a robot that jumps down the hole or lowers itself using a cable. The first prototype of such a machine, a four-wheeled Cave Crawler, can drive itself around underground and is already practising in the mine's tunnels. Onboard lasers sweep the floors, walls and ceilings to map out the tunnels.

Ever since the hole was discovered, researchers have been keen to work out its origin. Estimated to be about 65 metres wide and at least 80 metres deep, it seems too deep to be a crater. And its location in the once-volcanic Marius Hills region suggests that the opening is a 'skylight', an entrance to an intact horizontal tunnel beneath the surface, carved long ago by flowing lava.

Lava tubes have long been considered good locations for building lunar bases. “Their rocky ceilings can protect humans from micrometeorite impacts and cosmic rays,” says Carolyn van der Bogert, a geologist at the University of Münster in Germany.


Protected Moon caves may also house records of the history of the Moon and Solar System. Rocks that have been shielded from damage could look just like the surface did when it first cooled, or have textures that have been moulded by hidden processes going on inside the Moon, says Penelope Boston, a cave scientist and astrobiologist at the New Mexico Tech in Socorro. And solar-wind particles implanted billions of years ago could provide clues about the early evolution of the Sun, says van der Bogert.

“We don't really know what's down there,” says Boston. “We might be punching down through to a deeper layer that we have not seen from the small amount of lunar material collected at the surface.”

The Moon isn't the only astronomical body that is pocked with holes. Pits on Mars, lined up like strung beads above what seem to be lava tubes, promise to reveal details about the planet's inner layers without the need for drilling holes. And underground caves on Mars could shelter ice deposits, or even remnants of life.

“If you want to find past life on Mars, caves are a good place to look,” says Timothy Titus, a astrophysicist at the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. “They're protected.”

Getting to Mars isn't easy, but Whittaker may soon have the means to put one of his robots on the Moon. His company, Astrobotic Technology in Pittsburgh, has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch a rocket that will carry robotic technology designed by Astrobotic to the Moon. The mission is competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE — $20 million for the first privately funded team to land an autonomous vehicle on the Moon, move it 500 metres and send back data including videos.

Whittaker is no stranger to big prizes. In 2007, a team he led took first place in the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Urban challenge, with a Chevrolet Tahoe that autonomously navigated city streets in California using technology similar to that in the Cave Crawler. The Moon may be much farther away, but at least there aren't any traffic laws up there.


#2 DocM


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Posted 21 November 2012 - 14:27

An Astronotic lunar surface rover is supposed to fly on a Falcon 9 v-1.1 within the next few years as part of Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) competition. Announced over a year ago. They're one of the very best of the GLXP teams.

More on Astrobotic and their rovers here : http://astrobotic.net/

#3 neoadorable


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Posted 02 December 2012 - 08:18

I still don't understand why we don't have like a hundred rovers on the moon. I know we mapped every inch of it from orbit, but still!

#4 Growled


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Posted 03 December 2012 - 00:31

I know. Seems a bit odd that we basically ignore the moon.

#5 *RedBull*


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Posted 03 December 2012 - 03:59

I know. Seems a bit odd that we basically ignore the moon.

Moon? ...what moon?



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Posted 03 December 2012 - 04:15

I don't understand why there isn't a space station on the moon and people building Star Ships.
Our space programs should be that far by now I'd think. Should be exploring other galaxies by now.

#7 DocM


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Posted 03 December 2012 - 08:53

1) no political will, ergo -

2) insufficienr funding. No bux, no Buck Rogers.

3) intergalactic travel is out because the distances are vast. Travel to stars may have to multi-generational; you do the trip there, your kids do the exploration, and your grandkids crew the trip home.

Even then the time dilation effects of high speed travel under Relativity mean they'd be arriving back at Earth hundreds, if not thousands, of years in Earths future (time didn't dilate for the stay-at-homes.)

As far as exploring our solar system goes, NASA has a large vessel design that would work, NAUTILUS-X, and parts of it even use rotational artificial gravity. Function wise (though not in form) it's quite like 2001's Discovery Class ship.

extended mission version of NAUTILUS-X

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#8 Guest_seanseany_*

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Posted 03 December 2012 - 09:43

I still don't understand why we don't have like a hundred rovers on the moon. I know we mapped every inch of it from orbit, but still!

Thinks someone has been watching Star Trek a tad more than they should and not reading enough newspapers or keeping up with global current affairs lol Still you could always pay for the 100s of Lunar rovers out of your own pocket :rolleyes:

#9 neoadorable


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Posted 09 December 2012 - 04:38

using current affairs as an excuse is lame because part of the reason affairs are at their current state is precisely the lack of innovation and new growth industries. of course there's innovation in some areas, but space is literally the next frontier. when we start doing it in earnest it'll make the age of sail, age of exploration, and industrial revolution combined look like a drop in the ocean in terms of generating jobs, wealth, new tech etc.

and what does Star Trek have to do with any of it? You do realize rovers are not that expensive, and reaching the moon is really well within our capabilities. i know you're teasing but not in a good mood so i'll go for it...i don't like this whole problems on Earth first crap. The main reason we have so many problems on Earth is because we seem reluctant to expand beyond it.

Doc, the Nautilus, or an advanced version of it, was featured in the semi-satirical MARS movie. I hope you watched it!

#10 Hum


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Posted 09 December 2012 - 16:54

I know. Seems a bit odd that we basically ignore the moon.

The cheese is too stale.