Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University researchers have completed structural assembly of the lunar landing craft that will deliver the Red Rover robot to the moon in 2014. The half-ton aluminum structure will now undergo shake testing to confirm its soundness and its compatibility with the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Astrobotic plans to land the spacecraft, carrying both the robot and a commercial payload, on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility or on the Marius Hills next to a recently discovered “skylight” leading down into a volcanic cave. The solar-powered Red Rover will broadcast high-definition video to Earth as the four-wheeled robot explores the moon. Astrobotic aims to claim up to $36 million in awards from the Google Lunar X Prize, a NASA landing contract and a Florida launch bonus. The Google Lunar X Prize is a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.
“This lunar lander will be a key part of our initial moon mission and we expect to re-use this design for a series of missions that will establish Astrobotic Technology as an ongoing, exploration enterprise,” said William “Red” Whittaker, CMU professor of robotics and Astrobotics’ CEO and chief technical officer. “It’s an amazing piece of technology and it’s gratifying to know that so much of it was invented and crafted here in Western Pennsylvania.”
The team used engineering simulation software provided by ANSYS Inc. of Canonsburg, Pa., to calculate the design’s strength and stiffness. Pittsburgh-based Alcoa provided technical expertise, the aluminum used to create the structure of the lunar lander, and the fasteners that hold the lander together. Its largest component is a 10-foot-diameter, 1-inch-thick deck made from two slabs of solid aluminum joined via stir welding by Concurrent Technologies Corp. in Johnstown, Pa., and machined by Edgar Industries in New Kensington, Pa.
Assembly took place in the Planetary Robotics Lab in Carnegie Mellon’s Gates and Hillman centers; a grant from the state of Pennsylvania enabled construction of the lab, which was finished in 2009.
When the craft is completed, the deck will support four spherical fuel tanks capable of carrying almost two tons of propellant. A single main engine controlling the lander’s descent will sit below the deck and eight thrusters on the deck’s periphery will provide stability. A cone-shaped structure atop the deck will connect to the 173-pound Red Rover. The lander also can carry up to 242 pounds of commercial payload and will have rechargeable batteries and solar panels capable of providing 500 watts of power during daylight.
In February, Astrobotic signed a contract with SpaceX to launch its mission on a Falcon 9 rocket, the same vehicle that NASA will use to send supplies to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 will throw the Astrobotic spacecraft into a lunar trajectory for a four-day cruise to the moon. Navigation software, developed at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute so vehicles could drive themselves safely and reliably, will be used to guide the spacecraft to a soft and precise landing on the moon. Fold-down ramps will allow the rover to roll down either side of the lander, in case one side is blocked by a boulder or crater.
A unique aspect of the expedition is the inclusion of interdisciplinary arts projects created by students and faculty based in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts. CMU Professor Lowry Burgess is coordinating the historic Moon Arts project.
In addition to Carnegie Mellon, the mission is supported by industrial partners such as International Rectifier Corporation and corporate sponsors such as Caterpillar Inc.