American astronauts may not return to the moon anytime soon, but robotic explorers seem poised to go there and just about everywhere else in the solar system in short order.
NASA's new space exploration plan includes a heavy emphasis on robotic missions that would land on the moon, Mars and even asteroids to pave the way for human exploration.
The agency?s 2011 budget proposed by President Barack Obama calls for funding two such missions starting next year. One of those missions is a lunar expedition that would test the ability to control robots remotely from Earth, or the International Space Station, on the moon.
The next wave of robotic missions could also test technologies for mining or extracting water, rocket propellant and other resources, according to the NASA budget proposal.
"Trying to do mining operations autonomously in a remote location and under extremely difficult conditions represents a huge challenge," said Gerald Sanders, manager of NASA's In-Situ Resource Utilization Project. "But we're up to the task."
Besides, the U.S. space agency won't go it alone if its new budget gets final approval. It has already recruited allies and expertise from private industry to help kick-start its robotic revolution.
The next wave
Coincidentally or not, NASA chose an aerospace engineer with a strong robotics background as its new technology guru. Robert Braun spent much of his career working or consulting on Mars lander, orbiter and rover missions before eventually becoming the space agency's chief technologist.
"The area where NASA could perhaps lead an area which could affect society greatly is robotics," Braun said. "NASA is doing amazing things in both robotics and human exploration assisted by all kinds of autonomous systems."
NASA has also emphasized more cooperation with private companies for developing the next generation of robot explorers. It teamed up with General Motors (GM) to unveil Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that can use its hands to manipulate tools. Such a robot could work with minimal human supervision on the International Space Station.
Private industry has also been developing space robots based on its own initiatives, such as the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize that challenges teams to land and operate robots on the moon. Many contenders might eventually go into business flying lunar robotic missions for $50 million or $60 million, according to Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation.
"The goal here is to develop a low cost, reliable, turnkey exploration system where NASA can purchase the ability to fly to the moon with a lander, hopper or rover on a regular basis," Diamandis told SPACE.com.
Earth lessons for space robots
Space-inspired robotic projects could lead to plenty of Earth spinoffs. GM noted that Robonaut 2's technological advances could spawn better robots for building cars on the assembly line, as well as better vehicle safety systems.
Similarly, a diamond-embedded drill designed by NASA and Canada's Northern Center for Advanced Technology for piercing lunar regolith and ice eventually led to a sidewall dry-drilling spinoff on Earth.
Still, Earth-bound technology has also provided plenty of lessons for developing space robots that can operate in alien environments. Sanders pointed out that NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) has spent years hashing out lunar robot designs with Caterpillar, a leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.
"Caterpillar is working here with folks on robotic systems for autonomous area clearing," Sanders said, referring to the In-Situ Resource Utilization Project at JSC. He added that the U.S. space agency regularly swapped ideas with mining companies at conferences such as an event hosted by the Space Resources Roundtable.
Moon challenges and beyond
NASA will need all the knowledge it can glean from such cooperative efforts. Extracting resources from Earth's moon still holds many uncertainties for how would-be robotic miners and should tackle the job.
Much of the previous focus with NASA's cancelled Constellation program was on extracting oxygen from the lunar regolith. Now the space agency's new direction coincides with a renewed interest in mining water from the lunar poles, spurred on by recent water-ice discoveries made by orbiters such as Chandrayaan-1.
Yet going after polar water-ice means planning for robots to operate in extremely rough, crater-filled environments where temperatures remain several hundred degrees Fahrenheit below zero. That's unknown territory compared to the more familiar lunar regolith that NASA's Apollo astronauts sampled in the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders noted
Lunar probes such as NASA's LCROSS have recently gained a better sense of the different moon water ice flavors and forms. Lab tests on Earth have also revealed how an icy mixture of lunar regolith simulant can vary in consistency from sandy grains to very hard sandstone different conditions that a robotic miner might need to handle.
And that's just the moon.
If approved, a second robotic mission might also aim to land on an asteroid or Mars. Its stated goal would include transforming materials into fuel and eventually helping human astronauts to "live off the land," one step at a time, NASA officials said.
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