Caterpillar Inc. Joins Sponsors of Astrobotic Expedition

August 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

I’m posting this press release from Monday, because it really is big news. I’ve been wondering how long it would take companies manufacturing earth moving equipment to realize the enormous potential of lunar mining. Well, the wait is over. Caterpillar has stepped up in a bold and visionary move to aid in the first commercial expedition to the moon. Way to go Caterpillar!

PITTSBURGH, PA – August 23, 2010 – Astrobotic Technology, a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) spin-off company announces that Caterpillar Inc. will be a sponsor its first robotic expedition to the lunar surface. The initial Astrobotic mission will revisit the Apollo 11 site in April 2013 with a five-foot tall, 160-lb. robot broadcasting 3D high-definition video. The mission will carry payloads to the Moon and convey the experience to the world via Internet video access.
The expedition also will claim a financial trifecta: up to $24 million in the Google Lunar X Prize, a $10 million data sale to NASA, and Florida’s $2 million bonus for launching from that state.
In 2007 Caterpillar sponsored Carnegie Mellon’s winning machine in the Urban Challenge, a competition for autonomous vehicles conducted by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The sensors and code base developed for this race of driverless cars through city traffic are evolving into the guidance and control for the spacecraft that will take Astrobotic’s robot to the lunar surface.
“Caterpillar has enjoyed a successful relationship with Carnegie Mellon University over the last two decades. Our sponsorship of CMU’s winning machine in the 2007 Urban Challenge has served as a technology foundation for further work to automate our large mining trucks,” said Eric Reiners, Caterpillar Automation Systems Manager. “Our customers are moving to more remote and harsh environments. This drives the need for further development of autonomous and remote operation of equipment. We look forward to applying the technology developed and lessons learned from the Astrobotic expedition toward our own Cat equipment.”
Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic have expended more than $3 million creating mission designs and prototype Moon robots engineered to operate during extreme heat — soil temperatures at the lunar equator hit 224 degrees F at noon.
“Operating during the Moon’s daytime heat is the central engineering challenge for lunar robots, and we will take advantage of Caterpillar’s experience with rugged electronics for harsh environments,” said Dr. Red Whittaker, director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center and founder of Astrobotic Technology.
Caterpillar’s experience in autonomous mining and construction machinery also will assist with learning how to “live off the land” using lunar resources. For example, polar ice deposits can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for their return to Earth, doubling their productivity. New NASA research shows that some of the polar ice (a mix of water, methane and other compounds) is covered by an insulating layer of dry soil that robotic excavators can remove to access the volatiles.
“Caterpillar makes sustainable progress possible by enabling infrastructure development and resource utilization on every continent on Earth. It only makes sense we would be involved expanding our efforts to the 8th continent, the Moon,” said Reiners.
Astrobotic has just completed the first phase of a NASA contract to design lightweight robotic excavators for this task (see


Citizen Science Projects A New Trend

August 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: General Space Topic 

A new trend has begun to emerged around what is being termed “citizen science” projects in which the general public is invited to participate in serious and ongoing scientific studies within various areas of astronomy. We reported last month (see Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN) on one such project called Zooniverse. It was started in July, 2007 by the Citizen Science Alliance and now proclaims nearly 313,000 participants. Within the Zooniverse visitors are presented with a suite of projects that allow the average person to track solar storms, help astronomers figure out how galaxies form and evolve by classifying their shape using Hubble images, and in the latest project, Moon Zoo, you can help lunar scientists explore the surface of Earth’s moon by identifying features like craters and lava tubes you find in new images being transmitted from spacecraft now in orbit. But other programs are coming to light that give the science enthusiast an ever widening selection of studies from which to choose.

Two years earlier in 2005, a program called Einstein@Home was launched as a joint effort of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, otherwise known as the Albert Einstein Institute. If you like the idea of participating in serious astrophysics but are less enthusiastic about the hands-on aspect, this program is for you. It works by setting up your personal computer as one in a large series of nodes, which collectively have some serious computing power. It’s called distributed computing, and it makes use of your computer’s idle time to scan through data collected from various astronomical observatories like that from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to search for gravitational waves originally predicted by Albert Einstein, which could indicate the presence of exotic types of stars like pulsars and spinning neutron stars. And the program is turning up discoveries. On August 12, 2010 Science Express reported, “Three citizen scientists – a German and an American couple – have discovered a new radio pulsar hidden in data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory. This is the first deep-space discovery by Einstein@Home, which uses donated time from the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 different countries.” The press release goes on to say that, “The citizens credited with the discovery are Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa and Daniel Gebhardt, of Universität Mainz, Musikinformatik, Germany. Their computers, along with 500,000 others from around the world, analyze data for Einstein@Home (on average, donors contribute about two computers each).” A new day has dawned in the fundamental sciences when average folks can play such a pivotal role in new discoveries. And Eistein@Home is by no means the only distributed computing project available. According to there are also projects in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and math.

Another tool has become available to the amateur, and it makes possible new discoveries in Earth sciences right from home, but this time it comes from an unlikely source. On July 22, the journal Science reported the discovery of the Kamil crater in Egypt. What makes the discovery so special is that it was made using Google Earth! Hot on the heels of the first came a second discovery on August 10 and  reported by Wired Science that a crater 6 miles wide was found in the Bayuda desert in Sudan. Now a tool freely available to everyone is being used to locate as yet unknown meteorite impact sites on Earth in what’s being called the new age of “armchair crater hunting.”

Zooniverse, Einstein@Home and other programs are tapping into a powerful resource that has previously gone unnoticed: the populace. Regular folks. And why not? We are a renewable source of energy and enthusiasm. What’s more, we can contribute substantially to the greater body of human knowledge when mechanisms are devised through which we can participate in research.

But what’s next? The way I see it, the public may have a role to play in upcoming robotic exploration of the moon. Though NASA flounders for the moment, seeking direction and purpose, the private sector is moving full steam ahead with the fabrication of machines for roving, digging, sampling and exploring the lunar surface. And these machines, because of the moon’s close proximity to earth, can and will be controlled from command centers on Earth. In the next few years, we may well see instances of the public invited to climb into a virtual presence system and drive a lunar rover across the moon in much the same way that remote operators control robotic submarines and unmanned aerial vehicles. And should the call come, you can bet that yours truly will be signing up.


One More Giant Leap

NASA announced late last week that they are seeking to buy data from commercial providers that, “reduces risks for future human and robotic lander designs by employing these missions as unique demonstration testbeds,” according to their Broad Agency Announcement. Through their Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, the agency will award $30.1M to private companies already vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, itself valued at an additional $30M. With this latest incentive, private companies now stand to make over $60M for successfully landing on the moon.

The lunar rover built by Astrobotic Technology is set to launch in late 2010 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission has been dubbed Tranquility Trek.

This is great news for lead contender Astrobotic Technology (see The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN), a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company devoted to robotic exploration of the Moon. They’re already well into the hardware testing phase of their lunar rover, set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 late in 2012 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission, dubbed “Tranquility TrekTM,” will place a 160-lb, 5-foot-tall rover on the lunar surface for 10 to 12 days until lunar night fall. When the sun rises two Earth weeks later, the solar-powered robot will re-awaken to resume from its deep freeze hibernation after having experienced temperatures plummeting to -298 degrees Fahrenheit. This will be an important milestone for the technology since their plan is to follow on with additional robots to “prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center. There in the permanently-shadowed craters of the poles, robots must face the most bitter cold yet recorded in the solar system. This first demonstration flight will serve as a practice run for the deep freeze of the poles. And if these robots do well, they can serve as a first generation of a sort of space-based hunting dog to help in those tasks too dangerous for humans.

Design for a commercial lunar base. Could this be the shape of things to come and only just around the corner?: image courtesy Bigelow Aerospace

Still further, in an exclusive statement to SpaceTalkNOW, Dr. Whittaker said that his company also has plans to explore newly-discovered features on the Moon called “skylights,” (see A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities, January 11, 2010 STN; The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN; and Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN). These features are the collapsed ceilings of long-dead lava tubes, and they hold much promise as possible sources of lunar water as well as for natural shelter against the radiation environment.

This new NASA lunar program represents a giant leap forward in fostering lunar-based commerce around which the settlement of our nearest neighbor in space could arise. Like the COTS and CCDev commercial contracts before it, NASA will not use ILDD to take ownership of any flight or ground systems like was done during the Apollo program when the agency took full ownership of the Saturn rocket, Command Module and Lunar Lander and all their supporting technology. When Apollo died, those vehicles — so hard won — died with it. But this time, things are different. It’s a perfect example of NASA playing the role for which it is so well suited: that of macroeconomic enabler. The ILDD program’s money will spur innovation in the complimentary areas of human and robotic space flight, which is then reinvested to advance the state of the art still further. Private enterprise can then follow NASA to the moon and supply much of the agency’s needs for technology, materiel and logistical support. It’s a match made in heaven.

Once set in motion, lunar-based commerce can grow exponentially, making use of the nearly limitless, untapped natural resources to be found there not only for supplying the base there but for providing Earth with minerals such as Platinum (see Moonrush by Dennis Wingo, ISBN-13: 978-1894959100) which, though rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and could serve as a highly efficient catalyst for the first generation of hydrogen-powered, fuel cell automobiles.

Once a critical mass in space commerce is reached, it opens the door to the spread of space tourism, first from the short-duration, sub-orbital flights begun by Virgin Galactic to low earth orbit and then to the surface of the moon. The progression could be remarkably fast given the right set of circumstances. Already, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has plans for establishing the solar system’s first hotel on another planetary body. This can happen in our lifetime! All that is needed is the wise investment of both public and private funds. Uncle Sam and private industry can make great partners if they work together. Now the question is, do those in charge on either side recognize the potential? The NASA folks at the Constellation office from which ILDD will be funded obviously “get it.” But will Congress and the Administration pull the proverbial rug out from under them?


Results In for Constellation Poll

August 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Civil Space Flight 

The results of the SpaceTalkNOW poll regarding Project Constellation are in. To the question “Should NASA’s Project Constellation to return humans to deep space be cancelled?” 84.9 percent of respondents said “no.” By a wide margin the people believe that we should return to the moon and deep space. So it would seem that on this issue, like so many others, the Administration is at odds with the folks.


Space Trivia Contest

August 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

For the trivia buffs out there, I present a challenge. I will give away a SpaceTalkNOW t-shirt to the first 10 people who can correctly answer my trivia question.

Which is brighter?

a) a full moon, or

b) two half moons

I’ll also include a mug for those who can go the next step and explain why.

Send your entry to and be sure to include your name.

Click here for contest terms


A Simple, Elegant Solution

August 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

With the problem of space junk growing at an exponential rate (see Earth Now Has A Ring, July 27, 2010), the search for a solution is becoming ever more urgent. For the past several years ideas ranging from slowing defunct satellites to re-entry speed using low-power laser light to destroying them with space weapons to direct capture using a second satellite have been suggested, but none are viable solutions. Space-based lasers with which to induce the necessary drag forces are not yet technically feasible, because their power sources would be far too bulky and expensive to place into orbit. The thousands of additional fragments that would be generated from destroying a satellite would only make the problem many times worse. And the direct capture method would require years to develop at such a high cost that funding would likely never materialize.

An obvious question to ask is why satellite operators don’t dispose of spacecraft after their missions are complete by simply flying them back into the atmosphere and allowing them to burn up on re-entry. Though many spacecraft posses a propulsion system with which to adjust their positions and altitude periodically over the life of the mission and thus could conceivably be used to re-enter, there are also many that don’t, and there is no mandate to place them on board. It all boils down to cost. If a propulsion system is not absolutely essential to mission success, it will be omitted to minimize weight and thus limit cost, because each pound of mass launched requires additional fuel. Similarly, when propulsion systems are included, the amount of fuel launched with the satellite is limited to no more than is necessary to perform station keeping of the satellite at its intended orbital position.

Kristin Gates of the Global Aerospace Corporation in Altadena, California has come up with a simple and elegant solution. She proposes attaching a balloon 37 meters (approximately 121 feet) in diameter. At that size, gas pressure exerted by the atmosphere on that much surface area would induce significant drag forces, causing the satellite to gradually slow down and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere after little more than a year; that’s compared to centuries without an assist.

The idea goes like this: The balloon is folded, packed and stowed on board the satellite before launch. At a weight of only 36 kilograms (about 79 pounds), the entire package is light enough that its cost impact on the mission is minimal. When the spacecraft reaches the end of its life, the balloon is inflated with helium or some other inert gas. A year later that piece of spent space hardware burns up in the atmosphere.

This method would do well at some of the more congested altitudes below 1500 km (about 932 miles) where there is still enough of an atmosphere to provide the needed drag. For satellites above that altitude such as those at the geosynchronous orbit where many of our communications and weather satellites fly, another solution must be found. There simply is not enough air in that region that would allow the method to work.

Gates and her company are now seeking funding for a demonstration flight. This is where NASA should step in with funds to either fast-track a dedicated satellite demonstrator or place the balloon on an satellite that has already been commissioned as a “payload of opportunity.” No other technology presented to date offers the promise that this simplest of the simple offers, and while we wait for a solution to the problem of space junk, the situation is getting rapidly worse.


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