President Obama and NASA may have abandoned Bush-era plans for a return to the Moon: but it now appears that private companies, motivated by Google money, may yet reap a bonanza of lunar "economic and scientific treasures".
The latest development comes in the form of an announcement at the weekend by would-be Moon-exploitation firm Astrobotic Technology that it has signed a deal with famous rocket company SpaceX to launch its first lunar mission atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
According to Astrobotic, the mission will lift off in late 2013 if all goes as planned. The Falcon 9 launch stack will shoot Astrobotic's robot lander and rover package on a four-day flight to the Moon, following which the rover will begin a three-month journey across the lunar surface. If successful, and if no other contender gets there first, the mission would scoop most of Google's $30m Lunar X-Prize pot for Astrobotic. And that's not all, apparently.
“The moon has economic and scientific treasures that went undiscovered during the Apollo era, and our robot explorers will spearhead this new lunar frontier,” enthuses David Gump, Astrobotic president.
“The initial mission will bank up to $24m in Google’s Lunar X PRIZE, Florida’s $2m launch bonus, and NASA’s $10m landing contract while delivering 240 pounds of payload for space agencies and corporate marketers.”
The initial mission, referred to as "Tranquility Trek" by Astrobotic, is intended to set down near the famous landing site of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquillity, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the Moon. Astrobotic's solar powered "Red Rover", having scooped Google's first prize by travelling 500m from its lander, will then trundle onward to the Apollo landing site and beam back hi-def imagery.
After an Earthly fortnight, the sun will set over the Sea of Tranquillity and the devastatingly cold lunar night will fall. Not only will the rover be robbed of solar power, but it will become as cold as if it had been plunged into a bath of liquid nitrogen.
At the time of writing this webpage, the Astrobotic engineers didn't seem entirely confident that they could build a Red Rover tough enough to survive the bitter lunar night. The Soviets could and did do so back in the 1970s: the Lunokhod moon rovers successfully hibernated through many nights by closing their fliptop solar panel lids over their tub-like bodies and keeping the sealed interiors warm using radioisotope heaters.
Without the use of nuclear technology, however, Astrobotic may struggle to achieve the same feat. However the company seems bullish in its latest announcement, with spokesmen stating that they expect the latest Red Rover design to hibernate successfully through several 14-Earth-day lunar nights.
Astrobotic, a company spun out from Carnegie Mellon University's well-known robotics faculty, doesn't intend to rest on its laurels after scooping Google's pot of moon-bucks.
“The mission is the first of a serial campaign,” says Dr William 'Red' Whittaker, chairman of Astrobotic and founder of Carnegie Mellon’s Field Robotics Center. “Astrobotic’s missions will pursue new resources, deliver rich experiences, serve new customers and open new markets ... this is a perfect storm for new exploration.”
Dr Whittaker is already well-known for leading the team which produced "Boss", the robotic 4X4 which won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge – a competition for cars able to drive in urban environments without assistance from human drivers.
Whittaker and Astrobotic consider that the Moon offers several potentially valuable resources – in particular, the ices to be found in (or perhaps near) the eternally-dark, freezing depths of the polar craters. A few years back when NASA expected to establish a permanently-manned Moonbase, these ices were seen as a likely source of water, which would be invaluable for astronauts' life-support requirements (both for drinking and as a source of oxygen).