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NASA cites Astrobotic Technology as key to Mars exploration

Posted: 08 Feb 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Astrobotic technology  Mars  space robotic 

NASA is setting its sights on sending a manned spacecraft to Mars via the Orion programme, but not for another 20 years.

Once they get to Mars, after a nine-month journey from Earth through the high radiation Van Allen Belt, some of the immense challenges will be the poisonous atmosphere to Earthlings, and the high radiation levels on the Red Planet would ultimately cause cancer, brain damage and finally end their lives in a painful, violent death due to radiation poisoning.

A possible solution for prolonged human stays on Mars could be the shelter provided by the billions of years old underground lava tubes, some 100m in depth, originally created by hot, molten lava. Orbital photographic and remote sensing surveys of the Moon and Mars show evidence of these lava tube formations. There will most likely be no chance for any conventional radio communication down there so robotic rovers would not work.


NASA awarded a $125,000 contract to Carnegie Mellon University and its spinoff Astrobotic Technology to develop an autonomous drone that will be able to effectively move through the lava tubes easily and record huge amounts of video and other data like temperature, atmosphere, depth and more.

Originally spun out of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 2007 by William "Red" Whittaker to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, Astrobotic is pioneering affordable planetary access that promises to spark a new era of exploration, science, tourism, resource utilisation, and mining. Astrobotic is based in Pittsburgh's Strip District.

Whittaker, founder and Chief Science Officer of Astrobotic, is the Director of the Field Robotics centre at CMU. He says that Mars cave exploration makes sense because of more moderate temperatures below, better radiation protection, micrometeorite and storm protection as well as additional areas to search for life.

Robot mining on Mars

Dr. Uland Wong and Dr. Red Whittaker started the CAVES project at CMU developing robotic capabilities for exploration and 3D mapping of pits and skylights' giant holes on the surfaces of planets which may lead to the possible discovery of intact lava tubes below a planet's surface like that of Mars. Their research was begun due to the discovery of numerous pits across the solar system and a rising interest in sinkholes on earth. Over a period of two years, beginning in September 2012, numerous terrestrial analogue sites were surveyed with high resolution LIDAR scanning to support robot testing, algorithmic development. Their hope was to promote robotics and exploration in this area. See Figure 1.

robotic mining

Figure 1: Robotic mining (Image courtesy of Reference 2)

Their data were composed of point cloud models which were created using a high-end LIDAR survey scanner, typically from the FARO line (x130, x330). The scanner is stationary and mounted on a tripod. Many view points and scan locations are stitched together to create a unified model of the site. Several sites were also imaged with a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera for photographic data quality beyond the sensor's onboard camera.

Mars lava tubes

To construct a successful mission to explore the sub-surface lava tube regions on Mars and the Moon, a single rover would not provide a reliable enough solution. There is far too much equipment for one rover/drone to carry into an underground exploration journey and these robots would need to be autonomous as previously mentioned. A different system would need to be deployed in order to have a successful mission (figure 2).

lava tube

Figure 2: A lava tube in Hawaii which is thought to be similar to the ones on Mars. (Image courtesy of Reference 2)

Such lava tubes on Mars may also be a prime place for liquid rather than frozen water with possible food for the prospect of living micro-organisms. Some of these lava tubes might be a suitable place for habitats in which astronauts can live while on Mars with skylights providing for light that can promote the prospects for plant growth. One theory is that volcanic minerals might provide a source of nutrients for chemosynthetic organisms under the Red Planet's surface.

A rover/drone, once inside the lava tube, would be provided much better radiation protection than the Mars surface would experience. This in itself would be enormously beneficial to on-board sensing instrumentation that would not have performed well on the Mars surface with higher levels of radiation.

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