Small fry

NASA and Astrobotic video reveals a brilliant little moon rover's maneuvers

The rover has to be small and light, but incredibly tough. Here's what it looks like.

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The number of vehicles that have landed on the Moon remains a very exclusive club. The Moon buggies of the ‘70s and China’s recent exploration of the far side of the Moon stand out, but a Pittsburgh-based company wants to see many more rovers on the surface. To do so, it’s thinking small.

What's new — This month, Astrobotic and NASA announced that the company's tiny CubeRovers had completed its mobility tests with NASA. The road is long, though. While the CubeRovers passed 150 mobility tests that NASA had placed before them, NASA still has more than 1,000 tests to perform. Before it can do donuts in the lunsar basin called the Sea of Tranquility, the tiny rover must still pass many tests before it can get approved for the trip.

The smallest of the CubeRovers is tiny, standing at a mere 16 inches tall and weighing only 10 pounds. While they have a long way to go before they are ready for launch, the company tells Inverse that they will “absolutely” be ready by 2024, in time for NASA’s planned Artemis mission launch date.

Mike Provenzano, Astrobotic’s Director of Planetary Mobility, tells Inverse that CubeRovers are a direct response to CubeSats, the tiny satellites that have revolutionized the satellite industry. Once the domain of major corporations and countries, satellites can now be built by college students.

“Imagine you’re going to go to university, build your own CubeRover, and fly to the Moon all before you graduate. How cool would that be? That’s a personal goal,” Provenzano tells Inverse.

Provenzano posing with a CubeRover


Who developed it — The idea for the tiny rovers starts in 2017, Provenzano says, with a collaboration between Astrobotic and the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University. That’s not too surprising, considering that the company was originally spun out of the college. Since 2018, Astrobotic has “really taken the idea and turned it into a product we can sell,” he says. That has meant a series of design changes.

“It was a two-wheeled rover with a tail. And then it had four wheels with no solar panel, and now it has a solar panel,” he says. Above all, CubeRover's weight is a priority.

With weight being a premium on every space flight, having rovers that weigh closer to a small child or a piece of furniture would have a major advantage over its heavier competitors. China's Yuta-2 rover, which has been making discoveries on the far side of the Moon, weighs over 300 pounds.

Why it matters — The Moon presents many challenges to any entity foolhardy enough to grace its surface, human or machine. The weather is a big one, with one day on the Moon equalling fourteen Earth days. That means fourteen days of consecutive sunlight followed by fourteen days of darkness.

For the little CubeRover, it means “designing a system that can survive that negative 100 degrees Celsius up to 100 degrees Celsius,” Provenzano says, which he describes as “really tough.”

Here's the background — Everything from the radiation from the Van Allen belts to the challenge of getting a good WiFi connection would be a challenge for a tiny vehicle, and Provenzano predicts that the company’s first generation of CubeRovers “are not going to survive, literally because it’s just too cold.”

But despite the challenges, NASA’s tests give room for optimism. Working out of the Kennedy Space Center, scientists tested CubeRover wheels with flour-like dust that compacts to hard rock when compressed, a close approximation of lunar regolith. A video provided by the company — watch it above — shows a NASA tester giving an enthusiastic thumbs up as a CubeRover climbs out of an imitation crater.

A NASA scientist observes the CubeRover climb out of a hole

NASA/Kim Shiflett

The curious footage, Provenzano says, showcases a “really cool” potential idea—digging craters on the lunar surface and having the CubeRovers burrow underneath, shielding them from the extreme temperatures.

What's next — The CubeRover could open up any number of possibilities on the lunar surface, where scientists are eager to learn about the origins of lunar water. While the Earth’s lone natural satellite is “a logical next step,” Provenzano says Mars “is really interesting too.”

While the Red Planet would offer its own challenges, it’s clear that the company is thinking big with its very small rovers.

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