On the heels of the first Space X launch this week, Astrobotic Technology unveiled a solar-powered robot designed to drill at the lunar poles for water that will go up in the next Space X Falcon 9 launch.
Astrobotic Technology is a spin off company of Carnegie Mellon University. William “Red” Whittaker, founder of the school’s Field Robotics Center, is the CEO.
His Polaris water-prospecting robot is a contender for the Google X prize and could make a moon colony a possibility.
Lunar living has long been ruled out because water would have to be transported. But recent satellite images suggest there could be ice buried beneath the shady lunar poles.
This is a big mission, one not suited for the average robot. Whittaker specifically designed Polaris to prospect for ice at the poles of the moon.
“Everything you do in space exploration is power, power, power,” Whittaker said. “Everything, everything depends on power.”
The American rover currently zooming around the equator of the moon is a 100-watt robot powered with horizontal solar panels and a nuclear battery, Whittaker said.
His 250-watt robot will be able to travel a foot per second on sturdy wheels or actively drill into the moon surface.
It’s vertical solar panels will collect polar light, where the sun never rises beyond the horizon and will run a special battery.
Unlike lithium-ion batteries, the lithium-iron battery in Polaris has no water.
“During the cold lunar night, this battery doesn’t die,” Whittaker said. “It operates just like it did the day before.”
Typical batteries don’t respond well to extreme cold and have been known to explode. Polaris’ battery is a key ingredient in its success.
“That’s how you get long duration stays up there, day after day and night after night,” Whittaker said.
Being able to last through the night on the moon is one of the qualifications for the Google X prize, Whittaker said. And he’s confident Polaris has what it takes.
Whittaker never questioned that the robot would be powered with solar panels.
Solar power is ideally suited to lunar operations. There’s no atmosphere or clouds so the light is always brilliant, Whittaker said. There’s no diffusion. There are no weak times at dawn or dusk. The sun is either up or down. And at the poles, while the sun is never as direct as it is on the equator, it’s always hovering around the horizon and today’s solar panels can capture that light efficiently.
“Solar in space is the way to go,” Whittaker said. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s foregone.”