NASA has chosen Carnegie Mellon University and Astrobotic to build a rover that will land on the moon as early as 2021.
The rover, called MoonRanger, will be about the size of a suitcase and weigh about 24 pounds on Earth. It will be fast and autonomous to accomplish long-range exploration missions within the span of a week. That's about the amount of time that a robot could operate on the moon before the onset of the lunar night and the accompanying deep freeze that would damage its electronics.
"This capability will transform the exploration achievements that are possible by near term 'missions in a week,'" said William "Red" Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center, who will lead the development and construction of MoonRanger. The rover is designed to produce detailed 3D maps of the terrain and could be used to explore the polar regions for signs of ice or lunar pits for entrances to moon caves.
MoonRanger is too small to carry a radio powerful enough to communicate directly with Earth. That means it must have autonomy for navigating, making data-gathering decisions and returning to its lander. Data and discoveries from MoonRanger's explorations will be relayed to Earth when it periodically returns within radio range of its lander.
NASA's Lunar Surface and Instrumentation and Technology Payload (LSITP) program awarded a $5.6 million contract to Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon to develop a flight-ready robot. It will be delivered to the moon on an upcoming mission through NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
This is the third moon research project for Whittaker that has been announced since early June.
NASA already has approved $2 million for Whittaker to develop robotic technology necessary for investigating lunar pits. Such a mission likely wouldn't be launched until 2023. Carnegie Mellon also announced it will send a smaller, four-pound robot built by Whittaker's team to the moon in 2021 aboard a lander built by Astrobotic.
"This latest NASA award to develop MoonRanger for a mission to the moon is another example of how Astrobotic is the world leader in lunar logistics," said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, a CMU spinoff. "Our lander and rover capabilities are designed to deliver our customers to the moon and allow them to carry out meaningful, low-cost activities for science, exploration and commerce."
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