KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The most recent NASA Mars rover is about the weight of a compact car and jam-packed with science instruments and cameras. A private space company wants to take the notion of a robotic scientist, shrink it down and send tiny rovers to the moon, they’re called CubeRovers.
Astrobotic Technology, a Pittsburgh-based company, recently sent one of its CubeRovers to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to test out how the little wheeled-robot does on simulated lunar soil.
A CubeRover, similar to a CubeSat or tiny satellite, is an affordable option for researchers to send mobile science payloads to the moon.
Mike Provenzano, Astrobotic director of planetary mobility, said the 4-kilogram rover will drive around on the lunar surface acting as a mode of transportation for science instruments.
“It essentially carries items to conduct either science investigations or demonstrate that our technology performs the way they’re expecting,” Provenzano said. “All the things that would help us learn more about them, and that need a mobile platform to find that information.”
Now that a CubeRover has arrived in Florida, it will undergo testing at KSC’s Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Laboratory. The little wheeled robot will be tested on lunar regolith simulant — a terrain created to resemble the lunar surface. Researchers will test how the CubeRover drives on different surfaces and practice drop tests to make sure it can withstand the drop to the moon’s surface.
Provenzano said this marks a major development milestone for his team.
When CubeRover is operational companies, governments and researchers can buy the space they need at $4.5 million per kilogram. Astrobotic will handle the launch, landing, and rover for its customers.
The company will continue working on the CubeRover with a $2 million contract from NASA through February 2022.
Astrobotic makes the mobile robots in three sizes and they all include a platform for payloads that can host instruments such as spectrometers, neutron detectors, cameras and other important scientific sensors, according to the company.
The company is developing larger lunar robots as well, including the Griffin moon lander, selected by NASA to deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to the south pole of the Moon in 2023.
NASA awarded Astrobotic the $199.5 million contract under its commercial payload services program, known as CLPS.
Additionally, Astrobotic was awarded a $79.5 million CLPS contract from NASA to deliver 14 payloads to the moon on its Peregrine lunar lander in July 2021.
On its first mission to the moon in 2021, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will carry a whole host of science missions and payloads for different companies from around the world. The lander will also carry some more personal items in Moonboxes that can be purchased by anyone starting at $450. Through the Moonbox program families and people can send time capsules or other items to go to the moon.