Astrobotic lander advances to all-composite design

If I were betting on this X Prize competition I would have to pick “Red” Whittaker’s team Astrobotic (the Carnegie Mellon University spinoff). They’ve been testing the third generation prototype of their Astrobotic Moon robot, Red Rover on a Pittsburgh slag heap. The cool photo above has obviously had Photoshop help with the background:-)

The Astrobotic lander has evolved to an all-composite design, with new locations to attach third-party payloads. The Payload Specifications document has been updated and can be downloaded here.

The all-composite design achieves gains in stiffness and reductions in mass. The added stiffness raises the frequency at which it resonates, so that lower-frequency vibrations from the launch vehicle won’t set up compounded shaking that would destroy the lander and rover. The mass required for the all-composite lander may be half that predicted for a metal or metal-composite hybrid. This savings is being booked as margin available to solve engineering issues, rather than as increased payload capability.

The lander will be constructed from just seven shapes, none of them larger than the walk-in oven the team is using to cure its composite parts.

And from today’s press release, more description of the Red Rover design and missions:

Astrobotic and CMU are now testing a prototype robot engineered to operate during extreme heat, and to survive lunar night. Soil temperatures at the lunar equator hit 224 degrees F at noon, cooking the rover from below as the Sun bakes it from above. The rover has a hot side with solar panels that it keeps pointed toward the Sun, and a cold side with a radiator that it keeps pointed at black sky. Cameras on top can turn 180 degrees so that operators on Earth can see the path ahead regardless of whether the rover is rolling forward away from the Sun or backward toward it. Lunar night is as cold as liquid nitrogen. Being able to survive lunar night extends the mission to another lunar day, and the Google competition pays a bonus for operating after enduring the night.

The rover weighs 160 lbs. and is about five feet tall. Its “Tranquility Trek” mission to the Apollo 11 site is expected to last 10-12 days, until sunset cuts off solar power and the rover hibernates at temperatures expected to go as low as minus 298 degrees F. The robot will awake for further exploration two weeks later when the Sun rises, unless the extreme cold has damaged the electronics.

Subsequent Astrobotic lunar expeditions will prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions. Astrobotic has just completed the first phase of a NASA contract to design lightweight robotic excavators that can remove the dry insulating soil that covers some of these valuable deposits.