Robotic Lunar Bulldozers

Robotic Lunar Bulldozers
Small commercial robots the size of riding mowers could prepare a safe landing site for NASA's lunar outpost by surrounding it with an eight-foot high semi-circle berm to block grit kicked out by spacecraft landings from hitting nearby habitats. (Image credit: Mark Maxwell, Astrobotic Technology)

Lunar bulldozer robots may perform site preparation for moonbases. A NASA-sponsored study, prepared by Astrobotic Technology Inc. with technical assistance from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, was presented last Friday at a NASA Lunar Surface Systems conference.

NASA faces a challenge in planning the layout for its outpost, which is expected to begin operations in 2020,? said Dr. William. Red Whittaker, chairman and chief technical officer of Astrobotic and a Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics. ?For efficient cargo transfer, the landing site needs to be close to the outpost's crew quarters and laboratories. Each rocket landing and takeoff, however, will accelerate lunar grit outwards from the pad. With no atmosphere to slow it down, the dry soil would sandblast the outpost.?

Two potential solutions to the problem were examined: 1) the creation of a berm around the landing site and 2) the creation of a hard-surface landing pad using lunar materials.

The research team determined that 2 MoonDiggersweighing about 330 pounds apiece could work together in building a suitable beam in just six months. A berm 8.5 feet tall in a 160-foot semi-circle would require moving 2.6 million pounds of lunar dirt.'

Utilizing the second of the two alternatives mentioned above requires that the small robots comb the lunar surface for rocks, gathering them for a durable grit-free landing space.

The robotic lunar bulldozers would not be operated by astronauts; instead, the robotic 'dozers would be directed by a combination of direct teleoperation and supervised autonomy by workers on Earth.

This idea is old hat for fans of science fiction writers Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven. In their 1981 novel Oath of Fealty, they describe a telepresence bulldozer for just this kind of work:

"'Meet Rachel Lief,' Lunan said. 'Ms. Lief is a bulldozer driver.' Lunan paused for effect. 'As you see, Ms. Lief doesn't look like your typical tractor driver...'

'But then,' Lunan said, 'not every bulldozer operator works on the Moon.' The cameras followed the trim woman into another room, where there was a replica of a large tractor. It was surrounded by TV screens. One screen showed an astronaut sitting in the driver's seat, staring impatiently into the screen. A bleak, nearly colorless pit showed over his left shoulder.

'About time you got here,' the astronaut said.

'We were busy,' Rachel sat down in the driver's seat and took hold of the controls. 'I relieve you...'

The bulldozer moved through the lunar strip mine..."
(Read more about Pournelle and Niven's telepresence bulldozer)

See also this video of the bulldozer attachment to the Lunar Chariot; this is a multi-purpose vehicle intended for use by astronauts on the Moon. Read the previous article for more information about it - NASA'sChariot Is Not Your Father's Moon Rover.

From Carnegie Mellon University; see also this excellent Astrobiotic MoonDigger report (pdf) and this earlier report on Lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization (pdf).

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com)

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Technovelgy Editor

Bill Christensen is the founder and editor of Technovelgy (opens in new tab), a website dedicated to cataloguing  the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers. Bill is a dedicated reader of science fiction with a passion about science and the history of ideas. For 10 years, he worked as writer creating technical documentation for large companies such as Ford, Unisys and Northern Telecom and currently works to found and maintain large websites. You can see Bill's latest project on Twitter (opens in new tab).