Spelunking Rover May Explore Mysterious Lunar Caverns

Spelunking Rover May Explore Mysterious Lunar Caverns

William Whittaker’s cave-crawling robot could one day explore lunar caverns. Credit: W. Whittaker

William Whittaker has been developing roving robots for years. By 2015, he hopes that his rover will explore some mysterious caves on the Moon.

Three years ago, Japanese researchers discovered a hole from the published images from the satellite SELENE. However, spacecraft orbiting the Moon have been unable to peer into its shadowy depths. A robot rover might be able to go into it, and send back images of the inside. Whittaker presented his vision at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program in Hampton, Virginia last week.

The NIAC program will spend about $500,000 developing the rover. The prototype Whittaker tested in a coal mine could be lowered into the Moon’s pit to check for wall openings. There is also a prototype for a rover that jumps down the hole or lowers itself using a cable. The first prototype of such a robot is the four-wheeled Cave Crawler, and it can drive itself around underground. It has onboard lasers to sweep the floors, walls, and ceilings to map the tunnels and is already practicing in the mine’s tunnels.

The hole is estimated to be about 65 meters (213 feet) wide and at least 80 meters (262 feet) deep, probably too deep to be a crater. It’s located in the Marius Hills region, suggesting that it might be an entrance to an intact horizontal tunnel beneath the surface, carved long ago by flowing lava.

It has long been considered that lava tubes were good locations for building lunar bases. Their rocky ceilings will protect humans from micrometeorite impacts and cosmic rays.

These kinds of protected caves could also house records of the history of the Moon and the Solar System. Rocks that were hidden from damage could look just like the surface did when it first cooled, or have textures that have been molded by hidden processes going on inside the Moon. And solar-wind particles implanted billions of years ago could provide clues about the early evolution of Sol.

Whittaker may soon have the means to put one of his robots on the Moon. Whittaker’s company, Astrobiotic Technology in Pittsburgh, has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch a rocket that will contain their robotic tech destined for the Moon. The mission is competing for Google’s Lunar X Prize, which will award $20 million for the first privately funded team to land an autonomous vehicle on the Moon, move it 500 meters (1,650 feet) and send back data including videos.

Engineers think that autonomous rovers could one day be used to explore caves on the Moon or Mars. Credit: Video courtesy of W. Whittaker

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