US Firm Aims to Send Red Rover Right Over — Robot to the Moon

Tuesday, 08 Feb 2011 12:17 PM

By Dan Weil

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The space race continues apace. Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh has emerged as the leading candidate to win about $24 million of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for being the first team to drop a robot on the moon, traverse 500 meters on the moon’s surface, and transmit images and data back to earth, The Daily reports.

Meanwhile, United Space Alliance, a NASA contractor, is working on what it admits is a “long-shot” attempt to keep flying the space shuttle on a commercial basis after NASA finishes its final missions this year, USA Today reports.

Astrobotic, Red Rover, Robots, moon, shuttle
Astrobotic's Red Rover robots would mine materials for structures that would allow humans to live on the moon.
As for Astrobotic, it has booked a spot for its Red Rover robot on a Falcon 9 rocket that is scheduled to take off for the moon in late 2013.

“We’re the only team with the actual under-contract ability to reach the moon,” Astrobotic President David Gump tells The Daily.

The company hopes to fly a robot to the moon each year, eventually leaving a robot work crew. The plan is for the robots to discover and process materials that will enable humans to stay on the planet permanently.

Robots can help mine for metals such as iron and aluminum that would form underground dwellings for humans. In those structures, people and machines could bake lunar dust to make oxygen, melt the moon’s ice to make rocket fuel and package helium-3, which could provide an infinite supply of clean energy to earth.

“There are obvious and accessible resources on the moon from which it’s possible to develop a human habitat, life support, electricity and rocket propellant,” Astrobotic Chairman Red Whittaker tells The Daily.

Astrobotic, other private companies, and NASA could create a community of people on the moon by the late 2020s, Gump says. And ultimately astronauts could use the moon as a base from which to travel to Mars.

As for Houston-based United Space Alliance (USA), it wants to fly shuttles — Atlantis and Endeavour — twice a year. The flights would start as soon as construction of a new external tank is completed, possibly by 2013. The cost would total less than $1.5 billion a year.

USA has requested that NASA fund a six-month study of the possibility of a commercial shuttle. That would spark the development of new rockets and spaceships people could ride, it says.

USA’s plan would shrink an expected gap of at least four years between the takeoff of the last shuttle mission this year and availability of new privately run vehicles. During that interim, astronauts will have to take Russian rockets to visit the International Space Station.

But Mark Nappi, head of USA's Florida operations, acknowledges that the idea is "very much a long shot."

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