NASA tests lunar robots in Arctic crater

Researchers headed north to simulate a lunar environment. Unfortunately, the weather has been a little too nice. Photos: Lunar rovers on a test drive

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--NASA is gearing up to put autonomous rovers on the moon for the first time in 2020, so to simulate the lunar conditions, the space agency is testing its robot technology on a remote Arctic crater.

On Friday, NASA scientists on an expedition to the Haughton Crater at Devon Island in Canada talked about their tests so far with two lunar robot prototypes, K10 Black and K10 Red. Preliminary tests of the four-wheel drive robots have gone well, said Matt Deans, field director of the Haughton Crater Site Survey. The only hiccup of the roughly three-week expedition has been the weather.

The researchers were expecting typical Arctic weather, with ice-cold temperatures and unpredictable storms, Deans said. This year? Not so much.

"We've had too many days of good weather. We were hoping it would rain more so we could have more time working on our code," Deans said, half joking, over a live video link from Haughton Crater sent here to NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA hasn't put autonomous robots on the moon before, only human-driven rovers. In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union landed a robotic rover on the moon called Lunokhod, a remotely controlled vehicle (via joystick) that captured imagery from television cameras.

Maria Bualat, a computer engineer on the robotics team at NASA, said that the 1.5-second time delay (3 seconds round trip) of radio communications from Earth to the moon makes it difficult to control such a device with precision. So when NASA got its mission orders to send astronauts back to the moon in 2020, it sought to design a more autonomous robot that will be able to perform missions and also act quickly on commands from humans on the moon. Her team has been working on K10 Black and K10 Red for the past couple of years.

"We talk about the three 'D's'--dull, dirty and dangerous--and taking away those jobs from humans and giving them to the robots," said Bualat, referring to tasks such as site surveys of the lunar surface.

If the robots are designed to interact with humans (who would send them mission commands), then they need to respond and move faster than the Mars rovers. Those rovers move at a crawl, Bualat said.

The two K10 series robots, which weigh about 165 pounds each, navigate with GPS (Global Positioning System), stereo cameras and sun trackers. They also track terrain with 3D laser scanners, which can map topographic features 3,280 feet away, and ground-sensing radar that can graph terrain 16.4 feet under the surface. According to NASA scientists, the robots cover areas in "lawn mower-like paths" at human walking speeds to obtain 3D maps of the terrain above and below ground.

The rovers cost about $100,000 each to build, including equipment and manufacturing, according to Bualat. But that price tag doesn't include development of the software and algorithms, which in part come from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. The lab built and operates the Mars Exploratory rovers, and NASA Ames has borrowed its navigation software for the lunar robots.

But as for the computer hardware on the robots, "this is just the Fry's version," said David Korsmeyer, chief of NASA's Intelligent Systems Division. He was referring to the fact that all the parts on the rover could be bought at the electronics retailer. NASA, however, has developed some proprietary power systems for the rovers.

"The space version would be much more expensive," he said.

NASA is primarily focused on perfecting the software for the vehicles, according to Bualat. It contracts the manufacturing of the robotic hardware from a group at Carnegie Mellon University. Ultimately, when the software is ready, NASA will need to upgrade the manufacturing of the robots so that they are temperature- and break-resistant, for example. That's what would add greatly to the cost.

The robotics team selected Haughton Crater for its tests because it's geographically similar to Shackleton Crater at the south pole of the moon, which also measures about 12.4 miles in diameter. The rovers are covering an area of the crater known as Drill Hill. The dry, rocky terrain of this area is similar to the moon's surface. The crew plans to test the bots, which are wirelessly controlled using 803.11g, over 120 acres in the crater, collecting 3D maps and data.

"We wanted to bring our robots to a place that's a good analog for the moon," Deans said.

NASA eventually plans to send these kinds of faster rovers from the moon onto Mars and, there, the robots will need to be even more autonomous. (The Mars Exploratory rovers currently move at a crawl, according to Bualat.) Because Mars is much farther than the moon, the time delay of communication transmission is 15 minutes one way, according to Korsmeyer.

"On Mars, autonomy is a necessity," Bualat said. "But Mars is further in the future."

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