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Solar robot assembled by Carnegie Mellon spinoff might search for fuel on moon

Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012

A Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company on Monday debuted a solar-powered robot that it said could transform deep space exploration.

Astrobotic Technology Inc. hopes to launch its prototype, dubbed Polaris, in October 2015 on a lunar mission to drill for potential fuel at the moon's northern pole, where temperatures can reach minus 180 degrees Celsius.

Researchers have long wondered if there is fuel in space and whether the site on the moon could support a depot, said William “Red” Whittaker, CEO and founder of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute.

Astrobotic hopes Polaris will be able to answer that question.

“The biggest deterrent to exploration is propellant,” said Whittaker. “If you could refuel, you could go anywhere.”

Researchers have much to learn about water ice, he said.

“There's methane and ammonia in it,” Whittaker said. “You can burn it ... but whether those concentrations are usable” remains to be determined.

Some speculate that the amount of gas just under the moon's surface is equivalent to the amount of water in the Great Lakes, Whittaker said.

Astrobotic isn't in space yet. It needs to raise $100 million to $150 million to launch the robot and its lunar lander on a Space X Falcon 9 launch vehicle, said John Thornton, Astrobotic president.

Space X, a private company, launched a rocket from Cape Canaveral on Sunday to resupply the International Space Station.

Polaris has the juice, though: about three times the power of Curiosity, the NASA rover that landed on Mars in August. It uses navigation software developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Three large solar arrays arranged vertically to capture light from low on the horizon power Polaris.

“The light comes straight across. ... The sun never rises overhead on the moon,” Whittaker said.

The solar arrays will generate about 250 watts of electrical power.

Polaris, about 5 12 feet tall, 7 feet wide and almost 8 feet tall, weighs about 330 pounds. It uses software pioneered in the Carnegie Mellon/NASA-funded Hyperion robot, which keeps track of the rover's position relative to the sun's rays to maximize solar energy.

Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon have a lot at stake financially.

The Google Lunar X Prize makes a total of $30 million in prizes available to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface and send video, images and data back to Earth.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or


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