Carnegie Mellon University and spin-off space startup Astrobotic are developing a robotic rover to look for water on the moon, and the little bot just passed the crucial preliminary design review phase, putting it one step closer to its inaugural mission planned for 2022. MoonRanger is aiming to be the first robotic detective to investigate whether buried ice is present in sufficient quantities to be useful to future lunar explorers.
MoonRanger could well be the first, provided it sticks to its schedule, but it’ll have competition from NASA’s own water ice-hunting rover — a golf-cart-sized robotic explorer called VIPER that is aiming to touch down on the moon in December, 2022. The goal of VIPER is to help look for the presence of water ice near the moon’s surface in order to help prepare the way for the planned human landing in 2024, which kicks off efforts on the part of NASA and its partners in the international space community to establish a permanent human science and research presence on our large natural satellite.
Like VIPER, MoonRanger is destined for the South Pole of the moon, and will be a kind of advance scout for NASA’s mission. Ideally, MoonRanger, delivered by Masten Space Systems’ XL-1 lunar lander under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, will confirm the presence of water ice in decent amounts, and then VIPER will arrive a bit later with the ability to drill deeper and perform more rigorous on-site analysis.
MoonRanger will be much smaller than VIPER, at roughly the size of a suitcase, but it will have the ability to travel at speeds previously unheard of for extraterrestrial exploratory robots. The CMU bot will be able to cover up to 1,000 meters (almost two-thirds of a mile) over the course of a single day. That small size means it’ll rely on a relay to send any communications back to Earth — a process which will involve transmitting to the Masten lander, which will relay that back to scientists here at home using its much higher-powered communications array.