Roving moon robots

NASA has been using two robots to survey a rocky, isolated polar desert within the Haughton Crater in the Arctic Circle.

It hopes to demonstrate the capability of robots in evaluating potential outposts on the Moon or Mars.

The robots, K10 Black and K10 Red, weigh 75kg and can carry hardware weighing up to 50kg. They are fitted with 3D laser scanners and radar, and navigate using GPS, stereo cameras and sun trackers. They were launched in the polar region because of the extreme environmental conditions, lack of infrastructure and resources, and geological features.

Haughton Crater at Devon Island, Canada, is geographically similar to Shackleton Crater at the South Pole of the Moon, and has a 20km diameter. The robots will map an area of 5,000km2.

‘Studying how humans and robots can maximise scientific returns in sites such as Devon Island will prepare us to walk on the Moon and Mars,’ said Simon Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Before a lunar outpost can be established, NASA has to conduct detailed surveys at a range of locations to produce maps and look for minerals and water. The agency plans to complete the surveys using an automated orbiting spacecraft.

Since most of the lunar sites are on harsh terrain and in permanently shadowed areas, a robot can reduce the costs of a mission and improve its effectiveness by allowing ground control to conduct surveying tasks.

‘A typical scenario involves multiple rovers autonomously surveying a region while humans supervise and assess data from a remote location,’ said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robots Group at Ames.

K10 Black and K10 Red will use a combination of information previously obtained by aerial and satellite imaging and data that the robot survey team is gathering.

As the robots cover the area in lawnmower-like paths at human walking speeds, the 3D laser scanner can map topographic features from a distance of 1km, and the ground-penetrating radar is capable of mapping a below ground depth of 5m.

NASA plans to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.