When Pennsylvania-based aerospace company Astrobotic launches its lander to the Moon within the next couple of years, a four-wheeled robot no bigger than a toaster will be along for the ride. The robotic rover, built by Carnegie Mellon University, will help test just how small rovers can get and still survive on the Moon’s surface.
Last week, NASA awarded Astrobotic a contract of $79.5 million to carry up to 14 NASA-sponsored payloads on its lander, named Peregrine. Along with those, the lander will carry another 14 from other commercial companies, research organizations, and space agencies. That’s a total of 28 payloads meant to fit on a lander that’s just a little over 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
There’s not a lot of room on the Peregrine, which is why the rover, first announced today, has to be small. But creating a tiny, robotic rover that can survive the lunar surface’s extreme swings in temperature, low gravity, and a high radiation environment is no easy task. Typically, rovers are built big and hardy to withstand the harsh environments of other worlds, as well as to carry as many scientific instruments as possible; NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, for instance, is the size of a car.
But the rovers of the future might have to downsize. Along with this American-made robotic rover, Peregrine is also carrying a handful of other pint-sized rovers. A Japanese company called ispace plans to supply a rover for the lander, and Mexico’s space agency is providing a few micro-rovers for the mission. Including such mobile platforms is going to be an important part of Astrobotic’s mission, according to the company. “Having rovers on the mission is critical and an exciting part about it,” John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic, tells The Verge. “It will give us ways to look back on the lander itself, to explore the surface to see the surroundings, and to really just kind of expand our knowledge of the terrain and the area around our landing site.”
The stakes are big for the small rovers. Proving that pint-sized rovers can work on the Moon could open up lunar exploration to other groups, as tinier robots are cheaper to build, easier to make, and lighten loads for rockets. “We’re actually pushing the boundary of small,” Red Whittaker, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon leading the development of the American rover, tells The Verge. “So much of the future of space is robotic. And within robotics, small is the next big thing.”
There are a lot of limitations that come with smaller rovers, according to Whittaker. For one, these small cars can be harder to drive on rough planetary surfaces. It’s also difficult for them to generate power and regulate their temperature, as there isn’t as much room to include hefty solar panels and radiators. And it can also be difficult to include numerous scientific sensors in such a limited space.
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