Washington, Feb 28 : NASA has demonstrated the functioning of a robot rover equipped with a drill designed to find water and oxygen-rich soil on the moon.
Exhibited during the 3rd Space Exploration Conference (Feb. 26-28) in Denver, USA, the new robot technology was a tough project for NASA.
The challenges the design team faced during the production were numerous.
First of all, a robot rover designed for prospecting within lunar craters has to operate in continual darkness at extremely cold temperatures with little power.
Secondly, the moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, so a lightweight rover will have a difficult job resisting drilling forces and remaining stable.
Also, lunar soil, known as regolith, is abrasive and compact, so if a drill strikes ice, it likely will have the consistency of concrete.
Keeping these factors in mind, the design team conceptualized a robot rover, whose first test was held in December last year, when engineers demonstrated a drill capable of digging samples of regolith in Pittsburgh.
The demonstration used a laser light camera to select a site for drilling then commanded the four-wheeled rover to lower the drill and collect three-foot samples of soil and rock.
"These are tasks that have never been done and are really difficult to do on the moon," said John Caruso, demonstration integration lead for ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) and Human Robotics Systems at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
This year, the team plans to equip the rover with ISRU's Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction experiment, known as RESOLVE.
Led by engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the RESOLVE experiment package will add the ability to crush a regolith sample into small, uniform pieces and heat them.
The process will release gases deposited on the moon's surface during billions of years of exposure to the solar wind and bombardment by asteroids and comets.
Hydrogen is used to draw oxygen out of iron oxides in the regolith to form water. The water then can be electrolyzed to split it back into pure hydrogen and oxygen.
"We're taking hardware from two different technology programs within NASA and combining them to demonstrate a capability that might be used on the moon," said Gerald Sanders, manager of the ISRU project.
"And even if the exact technologies are not used on the moon, the lessons learned and the relationships formed will influence the next generation of hardware," he added.