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Moon Space Science Technology

"Part-Time" Scientists Aim To Build Autonomous Moon Rover 111

Posted by samzenpus
from the do-your-own-driving dept.
First time accepted submitter ziegenberg writes "The lunar rover 'Asimov' developed by the Part-Time Scientists, and due to land in 2014, will be the first autonomously navigated rover on the Moon. Its autonomous navigation system is a major technological leap. While the Russian Moon rovers Lunokhod 1 and 2 in the early 70s were fully controlled from Earth, today's Mars rovers like NASA's Mars Exploration Rover 'Opportunity,' which has been tirelessly exploring the Red Planet since 2004, are autonomous. However, Opportunity requires nearly three minutes to process a pair of images — a delay that causes it to move at an average speed of just 1 cm/sec or less. New developments by the technology partnership between the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and the PTS have created, for the first time, an autonomous navigation system for a rover that has the capacity to process multiple images per second. The technology boosts a stereo camera that Asimov will use to calculate its own motion, generate a 2.5-dimensional environmental model, evaluate the site and determine a collision-free path — all in real time."
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"Part-Time" Scientists Aim To Build Autonomous Moon Rover

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  • by boshi (612264) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @02:19AM (#40097473) Homepage
    It seems like every month now that I wake up in the morning and see another amazing application for GPUs. It is incredible to see the progress that a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry can bring to other markets like space exploration that would normally run on super expensive first-generation prototype hardware.
  • by c0lo (1497653) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @02:25AM (#40097495)
    Opportunity (the rover) has [wikipedia.org] a ration of 560 W*h/day for everything it needs to do - and this includes moving its 180 kg.

    Granted, the insolation will be better on the Moon than on Mars (closer to the Sun), but... just how much power their GPU is going to require for computing the 2.5 D env data?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Opportunity (the rover) has [wikipedia.org] a ration of 560 W*h/day for everything it needs to do - and this includes moving its 180 kg.

      A simpler way to say that is that it consumes, on average, 23 W.

      Of course the moon rover going faster already means it will need considerably more energy even without considering the additional computing power. However I guess the typical pattern will be: Move to a target, do some experiments, move to a new target, do new experiments. The GPU (and movement) energy is only r

    • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @03:48AM (#40097803)
      The main problem with Spirit and Opportunity was that there were extreme limitations on size and mass. Thus the unusual and innovative method of a "beachball" landing... which given the restrictions made the whole thing possible. Other means such as retro-rockets, as with the current mission, simply were not physically possible given those conditions, and that was calculated in the very beginning. Thus the unusual -- one might say -- "alternative" -- landing method. It maximized the amount of scientific instruments that the rovers could carry.

      Due to the size and mass restrictions, nuclear power was also not an option, and the size of the solar arrays was necessarily limited. Nevertheless, while I know you are not criticizing the two rovers, it must be stated: given the constraints under which they had to operate, they worked remarkably well, and lasted years beyond their planned 90-day lifespan. If ever there was a NASA success, Spirit and Opportunity are it.
      • "If ever there was a NASA success, Spirit and Opportunity are it."

        Along with the actual moon landings, that is. I would rate them pretty closely together.

      • by c0lo (1497653)

        Due to the size and mass restrictions, nuclear power was also not an option, and the size of the solar arrays was necessarily limited. Nevertheless, while I know you are not criticizing the two rovers, it must be stated: given the constraints under which they had to operate, they worked remarkably well, and lasted years beyond their planned 90-day lifespan. If ever there was a NASA success, Spirit and Opportunity are it.

        Indeed, I'm not criticizing. I just wonder what the energy budget the Moon rover will have. It seems that placing the rover on the Moon will have lower constraints then for the Mars case. A lower gravity allows for lower (less speedy) insertion orbits, not climbing against Sun's gravity well - it just means the rover may be heavier - hell, the soviet Lunokhod 2 [wikipedia.org] weighted 840 kg. However there are some other constraints:
        - the Moon "night" is 14-15 days long - does the rover needs a heavier radioactive source

        • by Teancum (67324)

          Surviving a lunar night is a legitimate concern. It doesn't necessarily need an RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) for an energy source and I've seen some very interesting proposals with Google Lunar X-Prize teams that simply bury themselves into the lunar soil at dusk for insulation, but it is a tough challenge. Another approach is to build a "garage" for an exploration vehicle to spend the nights. This is assuming that the exploration vehicle is something like the Sojourner vehicle used in the

      • Thus the unusual and innovative method of a "beachball" landing... which given the restrictions made the whole thing possible. Other means such as retro-rockets, as with the current mission, simply were not physically possible given those conditions...

        Um... You may want to go back and review those landings [youtube.com]. Spirit and Opportunity also had a retro-rocket "sky crane" component.

        • "Spirit and Opportunity also had a retro-rocket "sky crane" component."

          But it couldn't carry them all the way down to the surface. True, and I should have clarified that. But obviously the tetrahedral "beach balls" were not dropped all the way from orbit.

          • "Spirit and Opportunity also had a retro-rocket "sky crane" component."

            But it couldn't carry them all the way down to the surface. True, and I should have clarified that. But obviously the tetrahedral "beach balls" were not dropped all the way from orbit.

            True. The retrorockets on the MER system were solid rockets, powerful and uncontrolled, but with a well known thrust rate. The landing controller ignited the rockets at an altitude (based on the velocity of approach) so that the known thrust would bring the system to zero velocity about 20 metres or so above the surface. Being solids, they would continue to provide thrust, and would have begun actually lifting the MER away from the surface if the bridle weren't cut.

            Curiosity's sky crane has rocket engi

    • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @04:05AM (#40097873)
      The moon also has a rather longer day - a lunar rover running solar would have to operate for fifteen days of sun, then hibernate for fifteen days of darkness. And the occasional eclipse. With that and the lack of an atmosphere, solar power isn't going to be an issue. More concerning is the task of keeping it from melting after fifteen days of intense solar radiation and no atmospheric cooling.
      • More concerning is the task of keeping it from melting after fifteen days of intense solar radiation and no atmospheric cooling.

        Actually, this should not be much of a problem. For example, slightly pressurized helium (which has a high thermal conductivity) could carry the heat of the solar panel to a radiative "heat sink" in the shadow behind it, or it could be physically coupled by thermally conductive metal to the heat sink.

        Radiative heat sinks in the shadow of a panel is a technique is used by nuclear-powered space probes (the Voyagers, for example). In fact it has been shown that the radiation (photons) from the heat sinks, impacting the backside of the antenna reflector, has acted like a "reverse solar sail", and has "negatively-bootstrapped" the probe: slowing it down in its path.

      • by nospam007 (722110) *

        "The moon also has a rather longer day - a lunar rover running solar would have to operate for fifteen days of sun, then hibernate for fifteen days of darkness."

        Unless the military 'tests' their laser canons to keep it running in the dark.

      • More concerning is the task of keeping it from melting after fifteen days of intense solar radiation and no atmospheric cooling.

        The lunar surface only reaches 130 C even though it has an albedo of just 5%. Even the solar panel on the rover will be more reflective that that (about 30% in practice). And the panel would act as a partial solar shield for the rest of the rover, with a high-albedo coating protecting the rest (white in the pics). So nothing is going to actually melt. Thermal contraction during the lunar night is the killer.

        "Then will be revealed what was stronger: the merciless lunar night or the valiant Asimov. It will

  • by Dr Max (1696200) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @02:26AM (#40097505)
    How come they didn't just use a laser range finder to create a 3d map of the terrain around the robot?
    • by Jesse_vd (821123)

      Probably due to the high power requirement

    • Because a laser range finder fired from Earth has a spot size tens of miles across by the time it reaches the moon, and only a handful of photons from any given pulse make it back to a detector on Earth. And because a satellite in lunar orbit moves too fast to track a given sub-meter (approaching centimeter really) spot on the lunar surface.

    • I concur: the power requirements would be prohibitive.

      However, after seeing the pictures I am not confident of long life for this vehicle. As Spirit and Opportunity clearly showed, a solar-powered device must include a method of cleaning that solar panel regularly to avoid loss of power. That was one of the biggest problems for Spirit and Opportunity: power loss due to dust accumulation.

      I can think of at least several schemes to clean the surface of the solar panels, while still in operation. Dependin
      • by khallow (566160)

        However, after seeing the pictures I am not confident of long life for this vehicle. As Spirit and Opportunity clearly showed, a solar-powered device must include a method of cleaning that solar panel regularly to avoid loss of power. That was one of the biggest problems for Spirit and Opportunity: power loss due to dust accumulation.

        What's the mechanism for dust transfer that's going to create a similar problem for this rover? The Moon doesn't have an atmosphere capable of carrying dust and the rover will be traveling pretty slow. That doesn't leave many alternatives for dust accumulation though there are a few. I think the lunar nights (and the resulting thermal issues) will be far more likely to shorten the lifespan of the vehicle.

        • by brunes69 (86786)

          Dust is not going to be a large problem on the moon for the same reasons you stated - the moon has no atmosphere. There is no dust in the air, and this robot is not going to be dancing around like astronauts do, throwing it up all over the place.

          • by khallow (566160)
            Dust does get moved around however. For example, I understand that the transitions from day to night and vice versa create electric fields that push dust around. Micrometeor strikes (and they don't have to be nearby!) can also generate moving dust.
          • "Dust is not going to be a large problem on the moon for the same reasons you stated - the moon has no atmosphere."

            There may not be any "dust in the wind", as it were, but when it is kicked up, it is kicked WAY up. Lack of atmosphere and low gravity also mean that there is little to impede it when it rises.

            Dust was a very major problem during the manned missions. It got onto and into everything. Admittedly, the rover won't be kicking up dust like humans jumping around did, but at the same time, it is going to be there a while, it will be moving around, and it has moving parts. In addition, there could very well be el

    • by leuk_he (194174)

      Wouldn't that cause the moon to blow up? 'shooting the moon with a laser?

  • ... Simultaneous Localization and Mapping.

  • Why not to build on the moon a large telescope-digital-photo-camera and make the HD images of Earth surface in almost real time?

    Not images of space, but images of Earth, of what is interesting and vital to us.

    Shooting cloudless areas on Earth constantly and feeding data into digital maps.

    I have an impression that moon pass over every piece of land on Earth. But nowadays the satellite images of Earth on digital maps are often obsolete, 4 - 5 years old, especially for small towns and villages.

    Ther
    • by harley78 (746436)
      You should watch the movie "What about Bob".
      • by Max_W (812974)
        Privacy issues should be addressed, I agree. But there is definitely a value in having precise maps. For example, reliable navigation devices can reduce global gas consumption significantly.
    • Wouldn't get an image over the poles, but who needs those? Still not practical: The moon is a long way up. Low earth orbit is not. To get the same image from the moon as an LEO sat would require ridiculously large and delicate optics. Worse, got to get to the moon. LEO is easy, but moon would need more powerful, not-mass-produced rockets. Then you've got to put the thing together - no way that an instrument that large is landing in one piece, so you need either telepresence robots or a manned mission to bol
      • by Max_W (812974)
        But the moon surface is rock stable. That is why photographers use tripods to avoid camera jittering.

        The issues of tiny meteors could be solved by automatically changeable upper protection glass over the lenses. Photographers also use them to protect expensive lenses from an accidental damage.

        Practically it would mean delivering to the moon surface large tilt & pan camera with a huge telescopic lenses, a box. And also sort of a large WiFi router with antennas. Difficult, but doable.

        This camera
        • by Dunbal (464142) * on Thursday May 24, 2012 @05:19AM (#40098135)

          But the moon surface is rock stable.

          I guess you've never heard of moon quakes [nasa.gov]. Rock stable my ass. Consider this the new thing you learned today.

          • by Max_W (812974)
            OK. 6 moon quakes per year for the whole moon. It does not mean 6 moon quakes per year at a given spot. A quake affects a particular area, the same as on earth.

            Following this logic the Earth surface is unstable too, still the photographers do place tripod on the earth surface to get the photo-camera stable. No electronic stabilizer can compete with a tripod.

            Plus on the moon there is no wind. On Earth one has to use a special tripod to get camera stable in windy conditions.
        • by Kjella (173770)

          But the moon surface is rock stable. That is why photographers use tripods to avoid camera jittering.

          An orbiting satellite is also extremely stable, while it's in motion it is also silky smooth only affected by gravity and an extremely light atmospheric drag. A typical LEO satellite travels 800km above the surface, the moon is 350-400,000 km away. That's about 500 times greater magnification needed. Also a LEO satellite typically makes a polar orbit in 90 minutes, sweeping the earth in bands faster than a moon-based telescope waiting for the earth to turn. Already there are commercial satellites with a 0.

          • by Max_W (812974)
            In short, you're trying to solve a problem that's already solved

            I nearly believed. But than I opened in GoogleMaps at a place where for almost 5 years there is a huge building, and the map still shows a meadow. The current images are often obsolete. Looked at another place, still no satellite map update for years.

            My vision is the large station with ndustrial scale telescope-digital-camera equipment, an international effort. And a sort of WiFi router so that anyone can log-in and use real time images o
            • by Herve5 (879674)

              GoogleMaps images are obsolete because Google doesn't *buy* recent images, that are for sale and not for free. But indeed they are available...
              (In some countries the national geographic agency indeed provides them; for instance in France you generally can get more accurate images through the national geographic institute's portal than through Google, but this is national alone...)

            • Your problem is not the location of the camera, but the "freshness" of the data. Google maps never uses up to the minute images, even on street view. If you want more up to date satellite views, you can get that from numerous providers. A ridiculously expensive lunar telescope with a wireless tech that can't even send a signal half a mile is not going to solve your problem.
              • by Max_W (812974)
                A robot shall not necessarily have wheels or legs. Such an Earth telescope-digital-camera could also be a sort of a robot.

                We pay by the tax money for the International Space Station, for the Space Telescopes, etc., but why not to build instead on the moon the earth imaging station.

                Certainly it should be a WiFi with en extended range, but the point is the real-time HD Earth images available via API to all, for free, for the money, which we paid already, so that astronauts can make pirouettes inside the
                • Reasons this is a stupid idea:
                  The moon is a thousand times farther away than reconnaissance satellites orbit, so the camera needs to be a million times bigger to get the same image (inverse square law).
                  It costs $10,000 per kg to get stuff into orbit. It costs about $100,000 per kg to get stuff to the moon (based on adjusted Apollo launch costs). So your moon telescope is going to cost TEN MILLION TIMES as much as a single recon satellite.
                  WiFi is for short range communications. If you had a transmitter
                  • by Max_W (812974)
                    An artificial satellite lasts how long? Sometimes several days, sometimes couple of years, but no longer than 10 years.

                    Have you seen this image?

                    http://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/space-debris-3-polar-orbit.jpg [universetoday.com]

                    These are hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk around the planet. This is not stupid?

                    Digital camera and super-computer themselves are not big, but the telescope is. So what? Expensive? Like what? Like 3 days of war?

                    I speak of an extended WiFi as a figure of
    • Actually, Moon Express is doing something along those lines [discovery.com] in their GLXP mission. It won't be dedicated to Earth observations, but it will be a telescope on the moon, which will still be pretty cool.

  • by Smivs (1197859)
    Yes, but will it observe the Three Laws of Robotics?
    • Apart from the third law, very likely given the rather low number of people on the moon. Unless it somehow figures out how to build weapons to attack earth.

      • Apart from the third law, very likely given the rather low number of people on the moon. Unless it somehow figures out how to build weapons to attack earth.

        2000 years in the future a Centauri remote probe skims over the cracked and baked desolation of what was once believed to be the home planet of an advanced humanoid species. A dark cavern proves to be the entrance to what might once have been an underground data storage site. A ruined sign hangs on the wall; 'GOOGLE' it says in alien pictograms. Scanning the rubble the probe locates a partial fragment of a data storage device.

        Years later the signal reaches Proxima Centauri, and a group of the Emperor's best

  • by Anonymous Coward

    the current MER software allows faster moving than the "launch load" written back in 2003.

    however, how fast do you need to move? The MER rovers have a maximum speed of about 5cm/sec, due to motor power limits. How far do you really need to go in a day? Do you need to cover multiple km in a short time, or can you just lollygag along, and get there when you get there. MER has basically the same motors as Sojourner did.

    Moving fast costs resources: power, mass, volume. You need bigger motors, bigger drive e

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      What about lunar dust? Run faster, and you throw more dust into the "air" (it's a vacuum of course) (ever seen the video of the previous Lunar rover?). the dust is electrostatically charged, and may stick to the rover, reducing the output of the solar panels.

      Actually, dust is what killed the soviet rover [wikipedia.org].

    • by PPH (736903)

      Good points. Unless the mission requirements include covering a certain area in a certain time (funding run out, for example), who needs speed?

      Just one thing: Stay out of the left lane, grandpa.

  • You mean they stole it from somewhere?

  • by Theovon (109752) on Thursday May 24, 2012 @10:07AM (#40099879)

    It always bugs me how people seem to often use the term Scientist for someone who is actually doing Engineering. There's no shame in engineering. I'm an engineer, and engineering is no trivial job. But as I understand it, it is the scientists that figure out how the world works, and the engineers use that knowledge to design new things. Both require serious insightfulness and creativity.

    Like in Venture Brothers, Rusty Venture calls himself a "super scientist." Indeed if this were reality, he would have to do a heck of a lot of science. But in fact, the majority of what he does is engineering, building huge mechanical whatzits and stuff.

    Why do scientists get all the credit?

    (P.S. I think technically I'm a scientist also, because I have a Ph.D. (optional) and conduct and publish research. But I don't think I'm as good a scientst as many of my colleagues. What makes me competitive is that I have very strong engineering skills, which makes my experimental systems and experiments more robust.)

    • Germany may have laws about who can call themselves an engineer, but not about who can call themselves a scientist. Ie, a profession vs a vocation.

    • [addendum]

      I think technically I'm a scientist also, because I have a Ph.D. (optional) and conduct and publish research.

      Judging by this and some of the other comments in this post... For example:

      You can't be a scientist just part-time. You either are a scientist or not, it's not about how much you "do" it, it's about formal education

      ...there seems to be a 180 degree reversal in how Americans think about scientists vs engineers and the rest of the world.

      In the US, a "scientist" is someone who is suitably degreed and formally published. While an "engineer" can be anything from a professional to a backyard tinkerer. Whereas in most/all other countries, an "engineer" is a highly regulated profession with minimum tertiary qualifications, while a "scientist"

  • "The technology boosts a stereo camera that Asimov will use to calculate its own motion, generate a 2.5-dimensional environmental model, evaluate the site and determine a collision-free path — all in real time." So what they're saying is they are putting a large robot vacuum cleaner on the lunar surface... Neato! It's about time that space tech catches up with home tech.
  • As a physicist I am familiar with fractional dimensions in dimensional regularization [wikipedia.org] (a process whereby infinities in Feynman diagrams are tamed by reducing the number of space-time dimension by a small fraction), however I have never heard of applying such advanced theoretical concepts to an environmental model. Bravo!
  • OK, so here's my incredibly stupid idea.

    If you had access to a weather balloon, how much rocket would you need to eject an extremely small rover (RC car sized) out of Earth orbit onto an eventual moon landing?

    Imagine the tiny rover is in a bouncy shell thing that will unfurl when it lands. Imagine you only care that the rover lands in under 5 years.

    Call it a semipro moon bounce. Is this at all feasible?
    -l

    • Further to the AC's comment, you'd also be hitting the moon at several km/s. Your bouncy shell would merely add a thin layer to the moon's surface.

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