It might seem like devolution instead of evolution, but NASA is working on a less sophisticated robot for lunar mining operations. Instead of a research scientist space rover that collects tons of data and sends it back to Earth or analyzes it right there, the new robot will essentially be a grunt tasked with heavy labor.
The prototype Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR) will spend months or even years digging away at the lunar regolith -- the mix of loose soil, dust, and rock covering the layer of solid bedrock on the moon, other planets, and some asteroids. It contains valuable materials such as oxygen, hydrogen, silica, as well as metals like titanium, aluminum, and iron. These could be used to make rocket propellant, water, air, or construction materials for astronauts, saving the extremely high expense of shipping all the supplies from Earth.
The RASSOR robot climbs a hill during testing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Source: NASA)
To extract these materials by machine takes many hours of hard work in the harsh environment of space. For that kind of consistent work, a robot miner must be rugged, efficient, and highly reliable. In addition, it must be powerful enough for excavation and hauling, have enough mass not to fly off in a low-gravity environment, and be small and light enough for a rocket to carry it with minimal use of fuel, according to NASA.
RASSOR is being built by a team of engineers at the Kennedy Space Center to fulfill these requirements. Its basic design looks a lot like other robots used for military, space, rescue, or scientific exploration applications: small and tank-like. Much of the design challenge lies in the fact that, unlike Earth-based automated mining machines, extraterrestrial robots working in reduced-gravity environments can't use their weight to produce the force needed for digging into soil and rock.
Team members solved that problem by giving RASSOR one arm on each end. Each arm is attached to a drum-shaped digging bucket. The arms rotate in opposite directions, while both bucket drums excavate at the same time. The drums can be repositioned to act as legs for navigating obstacles.
The current version of the robot is about 2.5ft high with its drums extended above its body. The final version will weigh about 100lb. RASSOR's operation has been tested on several surfaces, including crushed river rock and imitation lunar regolith.
To get usable amounts of the necessary substances from the regolith, large quantities are needed. The team estimates that RASSOR would need to work for five years at 16 hours per day to mine enough lunar soil for delivery to a plant.
After excavating, RASSOR would deposit the soil into a device that extracts water and ice and converts the remaining chemicals into oxygen or fuel for astronauts. That device will be part of the lander that delivers the robot to the moon. The design team expects to begin testing version 2 of the prototype next year.
Thanks, Elizabeth. I think one thing the development of this robot shows is that space robots are becoming more specialized, as we also saw in this slideshow on some NASA is developing with the Canadian Space Agency: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=254560
Indeed, Ann, I think this may also have to do with some of the budget concerns NASA has had. Always a bastion of R&D, the agency now has to do more with less. So perhaps it's far better for them to specialize for specific tasks in their robotics research since they don't have the luxury of R&D for R&D's sake anymore. I will check out that slideshow! Partnering up seems to also be a good tactic to keep NASA R&D alive and as innovative as it's always been.
Elizabeth, those are good points about NASA's budget woes and research aims. I think this specialization also means that the basic space rover design platform has been worked out and they can now focus attention on more specialized tasks.
Yes, of course, you're right, Ann, but this type of focus likely will have a financial benefit to NASA as well, or at least allow them to disperse funds in the most useful way. Interesting stuff to cover, at any rate! I do enjoy the NASA stories. Will keep an eye out for your updates.
Wonderful, story, Ann. One thing this robot shares with the Mars Rover is the long list of constraints that the engineers need to manage in development. This type of project brings out the creativity in the design engineer.
Agreed, Rob. Although there are also some constraints of Curiosity it doesn't have--those that would involve sensitive scientific instrumentation--and others it has that Curiosity doesn't, such as some mechanical design for soil scooping.
Ann, I wonder if this machine is a precursor to mining projects. If we find sufficient valuable metals and elements on the Moon or Mars, than vehicles like this could do the mining with minimally manned ships picking up the payloads and bringing them home.
Good idea. Time to strip-mine the moon and fire bolts of ore back to the Earth.
Let's say we mine a trillion tons of ore from the moon and asteroids, adding the Earth's mass. Would that eventually slow the momentum, orbit, etc of the planet? I would imagine, since we would add more mass than there would ever be on the planet in our lifetime. (barring a major collision.)
Ahan Nasa is doing great work , But i have one question this Robot would have been created for a specific surface level and what i think is that over their its not necessary that all the area has the same surface i mean to say the size of the sand granulaes and pebbles may varry as well as this is a nature and nothing cant be constant .So what have they done in order to over come this issue as the robot can stuck as well because of large pebbels .
Deberah, the robot has been tested on several different surface types, as the article mentions. There's more detail about this in the technical paper I referred to in a previous comment, which unfortunately has been taken offline.
Mining the Moon is for future colonization. So, let's say we have established a small city. Would people born there, in low gravity, never be able to visit Earth without their bodies being crushed? Sad future for citizens of the Moon.
Yes, that makes sense that the robot would be designed to mine materials for local use. But that could change depending on what they find under all that lunar dust. If the materials they find have great value, they will make it back to Earth.
Excellent story, Ann. Leave it to NASA to come up with a robot that digs effectively. The barrel design is definitely very interesting as a way to overcome the lack of gravity. Definitely a different type of design problem.
Thanks, Al--I really liked the design concept, not what it is so much as how the engineers worked it out. They described it in more detail in a paper that became inaccessible after I first filed the story; the entire site---NASA's technical reports server--has been down for a month or so.
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