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Astrobotic, CMU team to build tiny CubeRover for NASA

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Courtesy of Astrobotic
An artist interpretation of the Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander with CubeRover.

Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon University will team up to develop a new, small rover for NASA that could revolutionize science and exploration missions on the moon, Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

The 2-kilogram (4.4-pound) CubeRover could reduce the cost of sending rovers to space, said William “Red” Whittaker, a CMU professor who has worked on the project for years and is the chairman of Astrobotic, a Strip District space robotic technology startup. The technology could allow for several rovers to launch from one lander and enable more risky and challenging missions, he said.

“We just won’t explore challenging terrain. We won’t. … Because when we invest $2.7 billion in a rover and when the entire mission depends on the rover to succeed, we just don’t take risks,” Whittaker said about the current barriers to rover exploration. “But when it is a fraction of the mass and a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost, at least things like scouting or going into targets that are truly scientifically interesting is possible even though there is a risk.”

NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, weighed about as much as a car and cost about $2.5 billion.

The Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity weighed about as much as a golf cart and cost $400 million apiece.

Whittaker said it is too early to predict how much a CubeRover would cost, but he said he is confident about achieving a 2-kilogram design.

Students working with Whittaker at CMU’s Planetary Robotics Lab designed a CubeRover in 2015 . It weighed 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and fit inside a 30-centimeter (11.8-inch) cube.

Watch: CMU’s CubeRover unfolds

Whittaker said the lab has since built an 8-kilogram rover, a 6-kilogram prototype and developed designs for a 4-kilogram model.

Whittaker said Cube­Rovers won’t replace larger rovers in lunar and planetary missions but they could assist the large rovers, scouting out the terrain ahead and traveling places deemed too hazardous.

Astrobotic and CMU will receive $125,000 over six months for phase one of the project. It could receive hundreds of thousands of dollars more if it progresses to later phases. NASA awarded Astrobotic a Small Business Innovation Research contract for the Cube­Rover. Astrobotic, a CMU spin-off company with ambitions to land on the moon in 2019, has received 12 such contracts from NASA since 2010 totaling $3.8 million.

RELATED: Astrobotic drops out of Google competition to land on moon

Whittaker and Andrew Horchler, head of the program at Astrobotic, said the Cube­Rover has the potential to do for rovers on the moon and Mars what the CubeSat did for satellites orbiting the Earth. CubeSats are small, relatively inexpensive satellites that fit into modular boxes. Several CubeSats travel into space on a rocket and are launched at the same time, bringing down the cost of putting a satellite into orbit. CubeSats have created a standard size and shape for small satellites.

“Standardizing rover design at the small scale will open access to planetary bodies for companies, governments and universities around the world, just as the CubeSat has in Earth orbit,” Horchler said in a statement.

Whittaker said the challenge facing the team is akin to the technology advancements that allowed computers more powerful than desktops to fit in our pockets as smartphones.

“Once achieved, every landed mission will ultimately incorporate CubeRovers,” Whittaker said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or on Twitter at @tinynotebook.

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