NASA: Lawn mower-size robots may build lunar outpost

Researchers say 330-pound robots could create moon outpost before manned missions

Robots the size of riding lawn mowers could be used to start building a lunar outpost before humans make their next trip to the moon, according to a study by researchers at Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

The researchers will offer details about the NASA-sponsored study and their plans to create the robots during the NASA Lunar Surface Systems conference tomorrow in Washington.

"NASA faces a challenge in planning the layout for its outpost, which is expected to begin operations in 2020," said William "Red" Whittaker, chairman and chief technical officer of Astrobotic and a Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics, in a statement. He added that NASA will have to figure out how to construct a landing site so that each rocket landing and takeoff won't blast buildings and equipment with rocks and soil.

The new robots would be the latest of several that will be put to work on NASA moon missions. NASA has said that the future of space exploration will depend on humans and robots working hand-in-hand as manned and unmanned missions head to the moon, to Mars and farther into space.

Robots have already made their way into several space missions, but Carl Walz, director of advanced capabilities at NASA and a former astronaut, said in a previous interview that "we're just starting to scratch the surface of these concepts. It'll be absolutely critical. What we're trying to do is figure out how best to incorporate human exploration and robots. I think the nature of exploration will be different [because of robots]."

Last year, a 7.5-foot long robotic arm on the Mars Lander scraped up ice and scooped up Martian soil for analysis. Matthew Robinson, robotic arm flight software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said last summer that the robotic arm was the key piece of the whole Mars mission. The robotic arm and the Mars Lander froze to death last November in the lengthening Martian night.

Illustration of planned moon robot
Illustration of planned moon robot

The two Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, also have robotic parts that are helping them traverse the Martian landscape and send information back to Earth. And onboard the International Space Station, a $200 million, a 12-foot-tall robot was set up this past spring to handle maintenance jobs outside the facility, relieving astronauts of the need to make many dangerous space walks.

Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA, said in an earlier interview with Computerworld that such missions are the first steps in a robotic partnership that will help humans press further out into the solar system.

"The work we're doing now -- the robotics we're doing -- is what we're going to need to do to build any workstation or habitat structure on the moon or Mars," said Beutel. "Yes, this is just the beginning."

The report being released tomorrow points to two ways that robots can help build a rocket landing and launching site.

In the first scenario, two robotic rovers weighing in at about 330 pounds each would build a berm around the landing/launch site to shield the rest of the outpost from flying debris. Building a 8.5-foot-tall berm that stretches into a 160-foot semicircle is expected to be a six-month job for the robots, according to researchers.

And in a second possibility, robots could be designed to sift through the lunar soil to gather rocks that could be used to build a solid landing site.

"To discern the best approach, early robotic scouting missions need to gather on-site information about the soil's cohesion levels and whether rocks and gravel of the right size can be found at the site," said Astrobotic CEO John Kohut, in a statement.

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