Ready for blast-off

CMU-spinoff Astrobotic is still focused on a Moon landing, but its new mission includes going below the lunar surface

CMU's new Andy rover.

On a clear February day in the Mojave Desert, a Masten Xombie rocket launched. It landed again on the same pad, 78 seconds later. That might not sound like much, but the little more-than-a-minute flight provided Astrobotic with valuable information that the team will use to win the Google Lunar X Prize.  

“We selected a landing point and it landed on that landing pad,” says Kevin Peterson (E’02,’04,CS’09), chief technology officer at Astrobotic, a CMU spinoff. When it comes to space travel, landings are not accurate; most crafts give themselves about a 10-kilometer window in which to touch down, he says. It’s the difference between landing “somewhere in Pittsburgh” or on the 50-yard line of Heinz Field, Peterson explains. “Apollo 11 missed its landing point by five miles,” he says.

The reason that February’s landing was spot on was the Astrobotic Autolanding System, or AAS. And AAS is just one of the reasons that Astrobotic, founded by William “Red” Whittaker (E’75,’79), believes it’s going to win the Google Lunar X Prize. Created in 2007 by the X Prize Foundation, the Google Lunar X Prize encourages the development of space technology and exploration. The first team that successfully lands a rover on the Moon, drives it 500 meters, and broadcasts high definition video back to Earth by December 31, 2015, wins up to $30 million. Of the 33 teams that originally enrolled in the contest, only 18 remain. (See “Astrobotic’s Race to the Moon,” The Link, Summer 2011.)

“I think many consider us the front runners,” says John Thornton (E’07), chief executive officer of Astrobotic.

After Astrobotic sets its Griffin lander onto the Moon’s surface, a rover will exit the lander, and the race will be on. And it will, indeed, be a race—in addition to a rover designed and built by Carnegie Mellon, Astrobotic plans to ferry rovers from other teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. “It’s like NASCAR on the moon,” Peterson jokes—the rovers, of course, move much, much slower than Earth-bound stockcars.

But natural booby traps—loose rocks and small craters—cover the Moon’s surface. If Griffin lands on an unseen obstacle, it might not settle properly onto the surface, and the rovers might struggle to leave the lander and get on with their mission. To identify and avoid those obstacles, AAS uses a technique Astrobotic calls Terrain Relative Navigation. Two stereo cameras, an inertial measurement unit and a laser scanner track the landing surface and its relationship to the spacecraft. AAS decides where to bring down the lander after comparing the information it’s collecting to satellite maps of the area.

During the February test, designed to verify that all of the equipment was working correctly, AAS didn’t choose its own landing site. It did choose its own landing site, however, during a second flight test in June funded by the Flight Opportunities Program of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which has an intense interest in the AAS technology for its own missions.

Using AAS, Astrobotic plans to place its lander accurately within a 100-meter ellipse. “This could be the most accurate landing system, if it’s successful,” Thornton says. “The technology is developing well and we’re happy with it.”

While $30 million might seem like a generous prize, it’s a fraction of what it takes to make it to the moon. In addition to the rovers, Astrobotic’s rocket and lander also will carry other research projects that have been waiting to hitch a ride to the moon—at a price of $1.2 million per kilogram. By transporting the other rovers as well as scientific payloads, the company will earn much needed money to fund its mission and future development of its technology.

If flying to the Moon sounds ambitious enough, what Astrobotic plans to do next seems like science fiction. After sending back the HD video and traversing the lunar landscape, the rover will attempt to capture images of the entrance to a cave beneath the lunar surface. If successful, the Astrobotic team will be the first humans ever to peer inside a lunar cave.

“The Apollo-era missions taught us a lot about moon rocks and dust—it was the pinnacle of human and technological pursuit at that time,” says Whittaker, who also serves as CMU’s Fredkin Professor of Robotics and director of its Field Robotics Center. But those missions “missed altogether the ice, missed altogether the pits, the holes, the skylights. Our destination is a pit—the first exploration in the moon.”

Exploring the tunnels wasn’t originally part of Astrobotic’s mission. As the contest progressed, the team realized it needed to think big. “Lots of people think we’re crazy,” Peterson says, but the mission needed to be “exciting and important enough” to attract funding.

The tunnels, believed to have been created by volcanic activity billions of years ago, are a relatively new discovery. Although scientists long suspected there were tunnels below the lunar surface, there wasn’t convincing evidence until 2008, when Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft snapped images of a dark hole on the Moon. To the untrained eye it simply looks like a blemish on the surface, but researchers who analyzed those images, as well as others sent back to Earth from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, have concluded the hole spotted by Kaguya is nearly 300 feet deep and represents the collapsed roof of a lava tube.

If there are natural caves on the Moon, they may provide the logical place for humans to settle when they get ready to colonize the surface. The lava tubes would provide protection from radiation and space debris, for example. Successful use of the lunar caves also could provide a blueprint for settling Mars and other planets too hostile for humans. The lunar caves are “a game changer for settling the Moon,” Thornton says.

Thornton says Astrobotic is poised to lead the next phase in lunar exploration, which he says remains important. While NASA is focused on exploring asteroids and Mars, there’s still much that humans don’t know about establishing a permanent base in space, and the Moon provides an environment where we can develop and perfect the necessary survival techniques. “We need to learn to go camping in our own backyard before we go to the Arctic,” Thornton says.

Sending human explorers to live in caves on the Moon may sound like something out of an episode of Doctor Who, but as Thornton points out, “there were plenty of people who thought that settling the New World was crazy. If you’re not pushing boundaries, you’re not doing something interesting.”

Meghan Holohan is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears at MentalFloss.com and NBCNews.com. She wrote about Astrobotic in the Summer 2011 issue of The Link.

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