In recent years satellites have gotten smaller, scaling all the way down to CubeSats and even smaller spacecraft. Rockets have followed, too, with a surge in development of much smaller boosters for small satellites.
This miniaturization revolution has not come to robotic landers and rovers—yet. That should soon change, driven in part by a request from NASA for small, relatively low-cost instruments and experiments that could be sent to the lunar surface in the early 2020s to conduct scientific research on the Moon.
Proposals for this Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads program were due at the space agency last Monday.
The NASA solicitation places strict limits on the size of these missions—less than 15kg in mass. That’s because they will be delivered to the lunar surface by various (and, as yet, unspecified) commercial providers. This restriction, in turn, has led private industry to come up with some inventive ideas.
NASA expects to issue eight to 12 awards under this program in spring 2019, and, for the most part, these will probably be instruments that land on the surface and remain in one place. However, one company, Lunar Outpost, is developing a miniature rover that fits within these mass requirements. In an interview with Ars, executives with the company outlined their plans for a “Lunar Prospector” rover. Lunar Outpost envisions swarms of up to two dozen of these rovers crawling on the Moon’s surface looking for ice, precious metals, and other resources.
“The idea behind this is that if we want to put an outpost on the Moon, then we first need to know what resources are available there,” said Justin Cyrus, chief executive officer of the small company based in Denver, Colorado. “This rover technology was the one we identified that really needed to be developed first.”
Each of the rovers weighs 10kg, with about half of that mass devoted to scientific payloads. They are about 45cm long and 40cm tall. The rovers are designed to be autonomous, with an onboard lidar system to create maps of surface features on the Moon and sensors to allow the rovers to navigate into permanently shadowed craters where scientists anticipate water ice exists on or near the surface. They will come with a drill capable of penetrating 16cm into the lunar regolith, Cyrus said.
Formed in 2017, Lunar Outpost first created a design for the prospector rover in June of this year. Just a few months later, it has already begun testing a prototype in a regolith simulation at the Colorado School of Mines, climbing up inclines as steep as 30 degrees. “We’re focused on quick design, quick iteration, and a quick build,” Cyrus explained. “And if that build fails, it’s OK. We just need to learn from that failure.”
Lunar Outpost was founded with an angel investment, and, since then, it has not sought to raise additional funding, Cyrus said. He and other principals at the company decided to start the company after working in government and industry jobs and growing frustrated at the relatively slow pace of development and innovation there.
The company says it could announce its first mission to the Moon as early as the middle of next year, but this likely will depend upon NASA’s awards under the lunar payloads program.