Lunar Outpost, the space technology startup recently unveiled their rover concept to the public, known as the Lunar Resource Prospector. These rovers could help lay the groundwork for sending humans back to the moon.
Although it may seem that sending humans back to the moon is a long way off, there is progress being made, including in the private sector. For example, on November 13, 2018, the Colorado-based aerospace company Lunar Outpost publicly demonstrated their Lunar Resource Prospector by showing how it drives and drills in lunar simulations at a new lunar testbed facility, overseen by the Colorado School of Mines’ Center for Space Resources.
The Lunar Resource Prospector rovers are small and weigh only about 22 pounds (10 kilograms). In comparison, the Curiosity rover which is presently exploring Gale Crater on Mars is the size of a car and weighs about 1,982 pounds (899 kg). However, swarms of little moon rovers like these play a vital role in the goal of setting up a permanent human presence on the moon.
These small rovers are built to give exploration data for what is called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Meaning, they’re engineered to go to the moon before future crewed missions arrive so that the human missions can be organized more effectively and efficiently. The rovers will be on the lookout for resources required by future crewed missions, who won’t be able to bring all of the necessary supplies from Earth. Instead, they’ll need to use resources from the moon itself, like water, precious metals, and Helium-3, which are rare on Earth.
Other flybys/orbiting robotic missions to the moon have already ascertained that those resources exist on the moon’s surface. The data from these previous missions have been used to build general resource models of the moon’s surface. Currently, Lunar Outpost said, the models need ground-truthing to establish the optimal landing sites and plan future resource extraction operations.
Lunar Outpost envisions that the Lunar Resource Prospectors will autonomously explore the moon’s surface in groups, charting both surface and subsurface resources. They’ll navigate along planned path points while avoiding obstacles and hazards like rocks and craters. Although they are mostly autonomous, they can also be operated remotely by human astronauts, if required.
Moreover, if NASA’s intended Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is successfully built, the rovers could use it as a central hub for operations.
This is all part of getting ready for permanent human settlements on the moon. For instance, AJ Gemer, chief technology officer of Lunar Outpost, told Inverse that they want to see as many people living and working on the moon as possible in our lifetimes.
The new lunar rovers are significantly different from previous rover missions, on both the moon and Mars. On the moon, astronauts would use just one rover at each of their landing sites, and Mars rover missions have always had one or two highly advanced robots at most. For example, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity or the single rover Curiosity, which is even bigger and more sophisticated.
However, the new Lunar Prospectors would work in swarms of multiple rovers – known as Autonomous Lunar Prospecting Swarms (ALPS). This way ALPS could chart much larger areas, and they also won’t need to take breaks the way that human operators would.
So how are these rovers designed and what instruments are they equipped with?
As mentioned they are small (22 pounds, or 10 kg) and half of that is available for extra payloads other than navigation and prospecting. The rovers will be capable of drilling into the lunar surface and evaluating those samples from depths greater than remote sensing missions in orbit can measure.
What’s more, the rovers have a forward-facing mass spectrometer that will be used to scan the surface for resources for them to travel to the regions of highest concentration, much like “following the vein” of ore in terrestrial mining.
They will also use a space-rated 360 Laser Imaging, Detection, and Ranging (LIDAR) system to create maps of surface features with never before seen centimetre-scale resolution. That system will also enable ALPS to see in the dark – even in deep, permanently shadowed crater or lava tubes. Lunar prospecting will become a real thing as a result of the Lunar Resource Prospectors!
The rovers will even be outfitted with 4K video capability, portraying the lunar surface with unprecedented clarity.
Furthermore, the Lunar Resource Prospectors are economical and can be mass-produced and customized for different mission tasks. This is essential in the space industry because missions can be prohibitively costly.
Lunar Outpost should announce the details about their first mission in mid-2019.
However, note that the Lunar Resource Prospector rover mission is not to be confused with NASA’s Lunar Prospector orbital mission, which launched on January 6, 1998. That mission was a single orbiter and has no ties with the Lunar Outpost.
Thus, it may still be a few years off but private companies, in conjunction with NASA and other space agencies, are getting closer to sending humans back to the moon, with plans of eventually establishing permanent human settlements. Using the latest technologies, rovers like the Lunar Resource Prospector and other missions will help make that dream a reality.