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'Dangling hamster ball' robot could explore caves on the moon

The spherical Daedalus concept robot could roll around in lunar lava tubes.

Havin' a ball on the moon.
Julius Maximilians University

There could be hidden worlds lurking under the surface of the moon. Scientists have spotted openings to what they expect are subterranean tubes, underground tunnels that were once filled with lava. The challenge is exploring these hard-to-reach places. A proposed robot named Daedalus might be able to pull it off.

Daedalus stands for "Descent and Exploration in Deep Autonomy of Lunar Underground Structures." The European Space Agency is evaluating the robot concept along with other proposals for lunar cave exploration. Daedulus is particularly fun for its innovative design, which ESA likens to a "dangling hamster ball."

The Daedulus design calls for an 18-inch (46-centimeter) sphere with a stereoscopic camera, a lidar system for 3D mapping and sensors to help it suss out the underground environment, including temperature and radiation levels. It would also have an arm for rock testing and moving obstacles.

The robot would be lowered into a cave by a tether that would then disconnect to let Daedalus explore on its own by rolling around. 

"With the cameras acting as a stereo vision system and the laser distance measurements, the sphere detects obstacles during descent and navigates autonomously upon reaching the pit floor," roboticist Dorit Borrmann of the Daedalus team said in an ESA statement Wednesday.

Scientists are eager to get a look inside the lunar caves, which could potentially be adapted as shelters for sustained human exploration on the moon. The caves might also contain valuable water resources. But before we send astronauts spelunking on the moon, it makes sense to have the robots go first.

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