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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 

Recent Moon activities preceding


Google's Lunar XPrize, a Rs.201.34 crore ($30 million) competition to land a privately-funded robot on the Moon, will precede such efforts on Mars in the mid-2030s and foster robot development towards that effort.

Although a commercial monetarily-based incentive, this effort will foster creativity to solve difficult challenges ahead.

Recently, two Moon missions are joining forces as Google Lunar XPRIZE team Astrobotic is picking up a new customer: Lunar Mission One. They are selling to the public the idea to put imagery on the Moon for a price.

Launched last year with a Kickstarter campaign that raised Rs.6.85 crore ($1.02 million) from backers including Stephen Hawking, Lunar Mission One is a UK-based project expected to do some real science near the Moon's South pole in 2024.

Astrobotic's Griffin lander will use off-the-shelf sensors and common algorithms for navigation during cruise and orbit. It determines position and attitude from radio time-of-flight, Doppler, sun sensor, star tracker, and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). See Figure 8.

Griffin lander

Figure 8: Astrobotic's Griffin Lander with instrumentation (Image courtesy of Astrobotic)

On approach to the Moon, the lander will switch to the Astrobotic Autolanding System, which uses proprietary techniques for precision navigation. Computer vision algorithms compare images from the lander's cameras with high- resolution NASA lunar surface images to determine the craft's position and attitude. As the craft nears the surface, it uses laser sensors to construct a 3-D surface model of the landing zone. It detects slopes, rocks, and other hazards and autonomously manoeuvres to a safe landing.


Figure 9:Griffin Lander approaching a Lava Tube on Mars (Simulation) (Image courtesy of Astrobotic)

Planetary cave exploration on the Moon and Mars is planned. Whittaker's firm, Astrobotic Technology, is looking into how a robot would get itself into a cave or lava tunnel.

Rappeling down, like a mountain climber is one option. It is slow and controlled, but could cause problems if dry, powdery materials on the cave walls shook loose and rained down on the robot.

Another option takes advantage of the planet's reduced gravity by having the robot hop down a hole. A third choice is to string a suspension line across a skylight opening, similar to a trapeze wire, and have the robot lower itself down the centre, avoiding the cave walls entirely.

Relaying information from below the surface

Astrobotic has plans for a Multi-Rover design from its founder Whittaker. See Figure 10.

Subterranean signals

Figure 10: Subterranean signals from a Cave Crawler to the base unit topside. (Image courtesy of Reference 2)

Surface rovers and planning their views

The latest developments are recorded in a 2015 paper in Reference 5. This paper addresses the problem of planning views by a rover for modelling large, local, substantially 3D terrain features at long range from that surface rover. These include building-size and stadium size pits with vertical walls. Pits have been identified in recent high-resolution images of the Moon and Mars. Planetary pits are very important scientific targets for examination created by collapse, often exposing layers of bare rock in their walls, hinting at past volcanism and other subsurface processes with their morphology. Some offer glimpses into caves. See Figure 11.


Figure 11: A rover is shown here looking across a pit to get an image of the far wall. (Image courtesy of Reference 5)

This paper enables detailed modelling of planetary pits from surface rovers. It also outlines techniques for converting prior terrain knowledge into a planning problem, methods for planning rover images are discussed, and a comparison of different image-based reconstruction methods for pit modelling is presented. See Figure 12.

Trajectory planning

Figure 12: A diagram of the pipeline for view trajectory planning for modelling pits. Inputs include a prior model of pit geometry, information about the time (start and end) during which the modelling task must be completed, the trajectory of illumination direction over time for the pit to be modelled, and rover operating restrictions. (Image courtesy of Reference 5)


Astrobotic, a privately held company, contracted by NASA, is making huge strides in space robotics technology. Their research and development in this area will help enable NASA astronauts to have a safe haven while they are on Mars in the mid-2030s. This company's prime manifest is delivering payloads to the Moon for governments, companies, universities, non-profits, and individuals. I am very sure that there will be other private enterprises as well in the future working with NASA both in the U.S. and abroad. I would think that the European Space Agency (ESA) could be a possible candidate as well since they are already involved with an Orion module.

The Moon will be a stepping stone to Mars exploration by a manned NASA crew. Much will be learned by private enterprise with autonomous robotics efforts on our Moon that will lead to a successful manned exploration mission on Mars with a safe haven in which the astronauts can reside safely from radiation, micro-meteorites, violent Mars storms and wide temperature fluctuations on the surface.

Let's watch with interest and excitement while technology hardware and software develop into a solid technology for all future exploration to Mars and beyond—The main mission of the NASA Orion programme. You can be sure that "Red" Whittaker will be a key part of this effort.


1. Autonomous Exploration of Planetary Lava Tubes Using a Multi-Rover Framework, Wolfgang Fink, Victor R. Baker, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Christopher W. Hamilton, Mark A. Tarbell, IEEE 2015

2. Exploring Caves and Skylights, Red Whittaker

3. Study on Strategies for Planetary Exploration within the HG-Project "Planetary Evolution And Life", Caroline Lang and Aravind Seeni, IEEEAC paper, 2011

4. Mapping Planetary Caves with an Autonomous, Heterogeneous Robot Team, Ammar Husain , Heather Jones, Balajee Kannan, Uland Wong, Tiago Pimentel, Sarah Tang, Shreyansh Daftry, Steven Huber and William L. "Red" Whittaker, IEEE 2012.

5. Planning Views to Model Planetary Pits under Transient Illumination, Heather Jones, Wennie Tabib, William L. "Red" Whittaker, IEEE 2015

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