Monday, April 7, 2008

Lunar Nomads

Here's a proposal from JPL for a six-legged robot that would carry NASA's lunar habitat from place to place on its back:
The astronauts' 15-tonne living quarters, or habitat, could be mounted on ATHLETE before sending it to the Moon in a lunar lander. That would solve one major problem for NASA – how to lift the habitat off the lander, whose cargo area may sit up to 6 metres above the ground, and set it down at a desired location.

ATHLETE's wheel-tipped legs are so long, "it just steps right off and carries the payload anywhere you want," says JPL's Brian Wilcox, who heads the ATHLETE project...

The habitat's solar arrays would power the robot, which could also store power in fuel cells. In Wilcox's scenario, the habitat would stay permanently attached to ATHLETE, which could roam from place to place and simply squat down to bring the habitat door close enough to the ground for astronauts to get in and out (watch a video of ATHLETE lowering itself).

ATHLETE would normally drive around the lunar surface, since that is much more energy-efficient than walking. But whenever the robot encountered very bumpy ground, or its wheels got mired in deep soil, it could switch to walking.

"If we get into ankle-deep dust, we'll lock the wheels, use them as feet, and just tiptoe out, effectively," Wilcox told New Scientist. Watch a video of ATHLETE walking and driving.
I'm not sure I'd want to be sitting on top of this thing while it's stepping over rough terrain on a steep slope but I guess you learn to trust your technology or you don't fly it in the first place. It certainly seems silly to drop a base in one place and be restricted from exploring elsewhere. Presumably, you could drive the robot when you wanted to make rapid progress. Maybe you'd give it overnight goals and let it go on its own while the crew slept.

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