NEW YORK — U.S. astronauts may not return to the Moon anytime soon, but robotic explorers seem poised to go there — and just about everywhere else — in the solar system in short order.
NASA’s new space exploration plan includes a heavy emphasis on robotic missions that would land on the Moon, Mars and even asteroids to pave the way for human exploration.
The agency’s 2011 budget proposed by President Barack Obama calls for funding two such missions starting next year. One of those missions is a lunar expedition that would test the ability to control robots remotely from Earth or the international space station.
The next wave of robotic missions could also test technologies for mining or extracting water, rocket propellant and other resources, according to the NASA budget proposal.
“Trying to do mining operations autonomously in a remote location and under extremely difficult conditions represents a huge challenge,” said Gerald Sanders, manager of NASA’s In-Situ Resource Utilization Project. “But we’re up to the task.”
Besides, NASA will not go it alone if its new budget gets final approval. It has already recruited allies and expertise from private industry to help kick-start its robotic revolution.
Coincidentally or not, NASA chose an aerospace engineer with a strong robotics background as its new technology guru. Robert Braun spent much of his career working or consulting on Mars lander, orbiter and rover missions before eventually becoming the space agency’s chief technologist.
“The area where NASA could perhaps lead — an area which could affect society greatly — is robotics,” Braun said. “NASA is doing amazing things in both robotics and human exploration assisted by all kinds of autonomous systems.”
NASA also has emphasized more cooperation with private companies for developing the next generation of robot explorers. It teamed up with automaker General Motors to unveil Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that can use its hands to manipulate tools. Such a robot could work with minimal human supervision on the international space station.
Earth lessons for space robots
Space-inspired robotic projects could lead to plenty of Earth spinoffs. General Motors noted that Robonaut 2’s technological advances could spawn better robots for building cars on the assembly line, as well as better vehicle safety systems.
Similarly, a diamond-embedded drill designed by NASA and Canada’s Northern Center for Advanced Technology for piercing lunar regolith and ice eventually led to a sidewall dry-drilling spinoff on Earth.
Still, Earth-bound technology also has provided plenty of lessons for developing space robots that can operate in alien environments. Sanders pointed out that NASA’s Johnson Space Center has spent years hashing out lunar robot designs with Caterpillar, a leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.
He said NASA also regularly swaps ideas with mining companies at conferences such as an event hosted by the Space Resources Roundtable.
NASA will need all the knowledge it can glean from such cooperative efforts. Extracting resources from the Moon still holds many uncertainties for how would-be robotic miners should tackle the job.
Much of NASA’s previous focus was on extracting oxygen from the lunar regolith. Now the space agency’s new direction coincides with a renewed interest in mining water from the lunar poles, spurred on by recent water-ice discoveries made by orbiters such as Chandrayaan-1.
Yet going after polar water ice means planning for robots to operate in extremely rough, crater-filled environments where temperatures remain a few hundred degrees Celsius below zero. That is unknown territory compared with the more familiar lunar regolith that NASA’s Apollo astronauts sampled in the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders noted. Probes such as NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) have recently gained a better sense of the varieties of Moon water ice. Lab tests on Earth have also revealed how an icy mixture of lunar regolith simulant can vary in consistency from sandy grains to very hard sandstone — different conditions that a robotic miner might need to handle.
And that is just the Moon. If approved, a second robotic mission might also aim to land on an asteroid or Mars. Its stated goal would include transforming materials into fuel and eventually helping human astronauts to live off the land, one step at a time, NASA officials said.