Prospecting in the dark ...slowly
A robot that can navigate rocky surfaces and carry out drill operations in complete darkness is being developed at Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University.
The four-wheeled robot, Scarab, is a demonstrator of technologies that could be used on the Moon. The prospector is able to obtain metre-long geological core samples using a drill, and features rocker-arm suspension.
As well as enabling Scarab to lower its 1.5m x 90cm body to the ground to stabilise itself during drilling activities, the rocker-arm suspension can lift the robot's body 50cm off the ground so that it can straddle rocks or lean as it negotiates steep slopes.
Challenges being faced by the researchers include how to operate Scarab without light. Plans include the use of low-power, laser-based sensors to feel its way around, and radioisotope as a power source.
Radioisotope is said to be more energy efficient, which is important since the robot will not be able to run on solar-powered batteries.
'A lunar prospector will face a hostile environment in the perpetual darkness of craters at the moon's southern pole, where ground temperatures are -385ºF and no energy source is at hand,' said William Whittaker, the principal investigator of the NASA-funded project. 'It's where Scarab will thrive — even while operating on the electrical power required to illuminate a 100W light bulb.'
These power restrictions do mean, however, that Scarab will only be able to travel 10cm/sec.