The CMU Robotics Institute and the spinoff firm, Astrobotic Technology Inc., hope to launch the Polaris prototype unveiled Monday on a rocket bound for the moon in October 2015. The company still has to raise $100 million to $150 million to launch the robot on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket. Space X is a private space exploration company that launched a rocket Sunday to resupply the International Space Station.
Polaris is a solar-powered, four-wheeled vehicle about 5 1/2 feet high, 7 feet wide and 8 feet long. It weighs about 330 pounds and can carry up to 150 pounds of equipment, including gear meant to drill about three feet into the lunar surface searching for ice.
Scientists are hoping to find methane and ammonia in the lunar ice in concentrations that might enable the chemicals to be burned as fuel. Whether the ice exists and whether its chemical composition could yield useful fuels remains to be seen.
Researchers believe if fuel can be found in space, more expansive missions might be possible with the moon perhaps serving as a fuel depot, said William "Red" Whittaker, the chief executive and founder of CMU's Field Robotic Center.
"The biggest deterrent to exploration is propellant. If you could refuel, you could go anywhere," Whittaker said.
Polaris doesn't need fuel because it is equipped with solar power panels that can catch the sun's rays. The vehicle would land near one of the moon's poles where previous NASA and Indian spacecraft observations suggest ice exists just below the powdery lunar soil.
Whittaker said researchers hope the craft can complete the mission and win the $20 million Google Lunar X prize, which the search engine company is offering to the first privately funded team to land a robot on the moon, travel at least 500 meters, and send back video, images and data to Earth. But the project will also help CMU and Astrobotic improve computer vision, navigation and planning software.
"What Polaris does is bring those many ideas together into a rover configuration that is capable of going to the moon to find ice," Whittaker said.