Things are buzzing late Monday afternoon at Carnegie Mellon's Planetary Robotics Lab Highbay. Outside, in front of the garage door-like entrance, a trio of men fills up a kiddie pool with a garden hose. Just to their left, an Enterprise rent-a-truck backs up and a handful of students raise two metal ramps up to its rear in order to drive a flashy rover up inside. I ask our guide, Jason Calaiaro, what the vehicle's final destination is. "NASA," he answers, simply. "We have a great relationship with NASA, and they help us test things."
Calaiaro is the CIO of Astrobotic Technology, an offshoot of the school that was founded a few years back, thanks to Google's Lunar X Prize announcement. And while none of the handful of vehicles the former student showcases were made specifically with the government space agency in mind, given the company's history of contractual work, we could well see them receive the NASA stamp of approval in the future. Asked to take us through the project, Calaiaro tells us, quite confidently, that the trio of vehicles behind us are set to "land on the moon in 2015," an ambitious goal set to occur exactly three weeks from last Friday.
Tour of Astrobotic Technology's lunar rover lab at Carnegie MellonSee all photos
The most showy of the group is the Griffin, a large lander triple-parked on a patch of carpet smack in the middle of the Highbay. The 1,157-pound vehicle is a one-way ticket to the surface of the moon, via an autonomous guidance system that operates without remote human aide, utilizing a camera and laser sensors to construct a 3D model that helps it find the ideal spot to touch down. The lander draws fuel from four tanks -- in the model we're looking at, each is represented by a beach ball coated in a reflective material. Ramps on top of the lander help guide a rover housed within to the moon's surface.
Next to the lander are two versions of the Red Rover, a lunar scout with 3D-capable HD cameras, a 4x zoom still camera and a direct communication line to Earth, for sending 3D video and maps of the surface. The older version of the rover positioned its solar panels and heat-expelling white radiator too close together, forcing the team to design a model with the panels and radiator on opposite surfaces. The Red Rover is capable of "hibernating" through two-week nights on the moon, holding its charge through the cryogenic weather. The vehicle cruises around via a two-motor design, thanks to its chain drives.
Behind both rovers is a large, fin-like solar array, the top of the larger Polaris. The rest of the vehicle's body is currently living next door in a garage. The 330-pound rover positively dwarfs the Red Rover. It does, however, have a fair number of similar elements, including the solar panel / radiator system and camera / laser guidance. It's capable of carrying more than half of its weight -- 175 pounds -- including a surface drill and various scientific instruments, to help gather samples from the lunar surface.
These projects and more are coming to a moon near you in 2015. In the meantime, more information on all can be found in the source link below.