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Pittsburgh Company Is Helping Bring Moon Rovers Back In Style

Rodney Grubbs
A full moon, as seen from the International Space Station in 2002.

Since 1997, the United States has sent four rovers to Mars, but we haven't sent one to the moon in more than four decades.

A Pittsburgh company is in the process of building a new rover that could arrive there in just a few years.

Space tech company Astrobotic is developing the Cube Rover in collaboration with students and faculty from Carnegie Mellon University. The project has received two rounds of funding from NASA; most recently, it was awarded $750,000 in March.

The support from NASA comes amid renewed interest in the moon surrounding the potential extraction of resources such as water and silica.

The rover is about the size of a briefcase, with two front wheels and a tail in the back which drags along the ground for stabilization. As the rover moves across the surface of the moon, a camera and laser technology will collect data about its topography.

Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Mike Provenzano with a 3D-printed model of the Cube Rover.

“Our first deliverable is to provide a 3-D reconstruction of … the terrain on the moon,” said Mike Provenzano, who is managing the project.  

In addition to being able to withstand the temperature extremes of space and the moon’s surface, the rover is built to be low-cost, light-weight and adaptable to the needs of future customers. Provenzano said a similar approach has been successful with CubeSats—tiny satellites built to a common standard that has significantly lowered the cost of access to space.

“We’re building our rovers with scale in mind, so that way when a customer asks for a different [larger] type of instrument to put on board, it doesn’t really cost us much re-engineering work to do that,” said Provenzano. “Our circuit board has the capability to have more functionality integrated, and we have payload space [within the body of the rover] that could hold instruments.”

Provenzano said the goal is for Cube Rovers to work in tandem with larger, more specialized and costlier rovers.

“These [Cube] rovers would support those missions. They’re much lower cost [and] you can put them in areas that are very cold, very dark, or maybe have really rough terrain and you don’t have to worry about losing your really large rover, really valuable rover with a lot of sensitive equipment on board,” said Provenzano.

In the near term, he said the plan is for Cube Rover to spin off from Astrobotic as its own company.

Astrobotic is also developing a lunar lander called the Peregrine, which could drop the Cube Rover on the surface of the moon as soon as 2020, Provenzano said.