Carnegie Mellon University is sending another rover to the moon in 2022. MoonRanger, developed with CMU spinoff Astrobotic, will explore the region around the lunar South Pole in search of ice.
Whether or not a source of water exists on the moon is one of the most pressing questions in lunar exploration, according to Red Whittaker, a CMU robotics professor and CEO of Astrobotic Technology.
“The ice is the key to life on the moon and making rocket fuel to go beyond the moon,” he said. Astronauts can drink the water, and it can also be made into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket propellant.
MoonRanger recently completed its preliminary design review in preparation for its 2022 mission. More than 60 people — including veterans of the Apollo program and Mars rover project — provided important suggestions and feedback, according to CMU.
If the project stays on schedule, MoonRanger will be the first rover to explore the moon for ice. NASA will follow MoonRanger with its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) later in 2022. VIPER will perform more rigorous and sustained exploration and scientific characterization of any ice it finds.
MoonRanger is uniquely small and capable, according to Whittaker. About the size of a small suitcase, the rover can travel faster than other comparable bots. MoonRanger has a solar panel on top that looks like a shark fin.
While its size allows it to travel faster, the it doesn’t have a radio to send information about the South Pole back to Earth. That makes the rover’s return to the landing module key to its mission.
“When it returns to the lander, the map and ice measurements are communicated to Earth,” Whittaker said.
MoonRanger’s size also means shadows casted by craters could put the rover in total darkness. The rover will be the first to sense and navigate through darkness by by projecting laser line stripes ahead of it to model the darkened terrain, the way stereo cameras do in sunlight.
Once it lands on the moon, MoonRanger will evaluate its driving, navigation and mapping capabilities in short jaunts near the lander. It will then attempt a series of distant treks to seek ice, according to CMU.
As MoonRanger materializes, Whittaker and another student team continue to prepare for a 2021 mission in which a four-pound CMU rover called Iris and a CMU art package called MoonArk will travel to the moon on Astrobotic's Peregrine lander.