Image: Polaris lunar rover
Astrobotic
The Polaris lunar rover is designed to prospect for water ice on the moon.
updated 10/11/2012 7:55:22 PM ET 2012-10-11T23:55:22

The search for water ice on the moon could be led someday by a robot armed with a 4-foot drill. With the first prototype of the lunar rover, called Polaris, comes the prospect of eventually extracting resources from the moon, asteroids or other planets through space mining.

Polaris is the robot of choice for Astrobotic Technology, one of many private teams competing for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for landing robotic explorers on the moon. But Astrobotic also wants to build a lasting business out of its lunar exploration efforts by testing the technologies needed for space mining.

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"This rover is a first step toward using off-Earth resources to further human exploration of our solar system," said John Thornton, president of the Pittsburgh-based  robotics company, which unveiled the prototype Oct. 8.

Polaris is the size of a golf cart and tall enough to wield a 4-foot drill. It can move a foot per second on its 2-foot-wide wheels and carry 150 pounds of drilling equipment and science instruments. Between its heavy drill and batteries and its lightweight wheels and chassis, the robot weighs about 330 pounds.

Polaris will need to withstand frigid temperatures as low as minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 173 Celsius).

The lunar rover's power comes from solar panels designed to point toward the sun as it peeks just above the moon's south pole.

A lack of GPS on the moon required a workaround. Astrobotic hit upon the clever idea of having the rover match whatever it sees on the surface with pictures of satellite images taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

If Polaris reaches the moon, it could be perhaps the first of many robots that scout sites for space mining operations. NASA has already begun talking with about putting its own ice-prospecting instruments on the private rover — one of nine contracts worth $3.6 million that the U.S. space agency has awarded to Astrobotic.

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Explainer: Teams reach for the moon

  • Image: Rover at X Prize announcement
    X Prize Foundation

    The Google Lunar X Prize is a $30 million competition that calls upon teams to land a robot on the moon safely, send it on a trek of at least 500 meters over the lunar surface, and beam images and data back to Earth. The prize program expires at the end of 2015.

    Click through our interactive to see the concepts being considered by 25 teams in the competition.

  • Angelicum

    Angelicum

    Angelicum Chile, headquartered in Santiago, was formed by aerospace and satellite engineers with experience in national space programs developed in cooperation with international space companies (Surrey, Astrium and others) and global entrepreneurs. Team leader is Klaus von Storch Kruger, and the name of their spacecraft is Dandelium.

  • ARCA

    Image: European Lunar Explorer
    ARCA via X Prize Foundation

    Romania's ARCA group is offering a spherical concept called ELE, or European Lunar Explorer. The team's leader is Dumitru Popescu, a veteran of the Ansari X Prize competition for private suborbital spaceflight.

  • Astrobotic

    Astrobotic

    Red Rover rolls through a test conducted by Astrobotic Technology, the team that wants to send it to the moon. Astrobotic coordinates the efforts of Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions under the leadership of William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics expert at CMU.

  • Barcelona Moon Team

    Barcelona Moon Team

    Barcelona Moon Team is a multidisciplinary joint venture bringing together Spanish entrepreneurial, industrial and academic capabilities. The team's leader is Xavier Claramunt, president of Galactic Suite Moonrace.

  • Euroluna

    Image: ROMIT
    Euroluna

    The ROMIT rover rolls around the lunar surface in this artist's conception. Euroluna (European Lunar Exploration Association) is headquartered in Denmark and is led by Palle Haastrup. Team members range in age from their teens to their 60s.

  • FredNet

    Team Frednet

    Team FredNet's is consideringseveral concepts for its lander, rover and launch vehicle. The team's leader is Fred J. Bourgeois III, an aerospace engineer and software consultant.

  • Independence-X

    Image: ILR-1
    Independence-X

    Malaysia-based Independence-X Aerospace proposes sending this ILR-1 rover to the moon, in partnership with Universiti Teknologi MARA and the Malaysian Entrepreneurs Development Center. The team leader is Mohd Izmir Yamin.

  • Team Indus

    Team Indus

    Team Indus, headquartered in New Delhi, India, seeks to represent the aspirations of one of the world's oldest civilizations and youngest population. The team plans to launch its rover on an Indian PSLV rocket. Team leader is Rahul Narayan.

  • JURBAN

    Image: JOLHT
    JURBAN

    The Juxtopia Urban Robotics Brilliant Application National challenge brings together professional and student engineers, with the aim of sending a JOLHT lunar craft to the moon's surface. The team leader is Jayfus T. Doswell.

  • Moon Express

    Moon Express

    Selected by Forbes as one of the "Names You Should Know" in 2011, Moon Express is a privately funded lunar transportation and data services company based at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley. The venture's president and CEO is Bob Richards.

  • Odyssey Moon

    Image: MoonOne lander
    Odyssey Moon via X Prize

    The MoonOne lander fires its thrusters as it nears the lunar surface in this concept artwork from Odyssey Moon. The team, led by Rick Sanford, was the first to join the Google Lunar X Prize competition.

  • Omega Envoy

    Omega Envoy

    Omega Envoy's lander would be built by Earthrise Space, a not-for-profit organization founded by students and professionals in Central Florida, under the leadership of Ruben Nunez.

  • Part-Time Scientists

    Part-Time Scientists

    The Asimov 1 lander is being developed by Germany-based Part-time Scientists. The nonprofit group is led by Robert Bohme.

  • Penn State Lunar Lion Team

    Penn State Lunar Lion Team

    The Penn State Lunar Lion Team is made up of Penn State students and faculty, along with engineers from Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory.  Team leader is Michael V. Paul.

  • Team Phoenicia

    Team Phoenicia

    Team Phoenicia’s lander/rover combination will piggyback on a communications satellite launch to geosynchronous orbit as a “hosted payload.” From there, the lander will separate from the parent craft and make a burn to insert itself into a transit orbit to a direct landing on the lunar south pole. The team's leader is William P. Baird.

  • Plan B

    Plan B

    "Plan B" is an initiative from the privately funded Canadian company Adobri Solutions Ltd. The team is thinking about delivering a hockey puck to the lunar surface for a symbolic face-off. Team leader is Alex Dobrianski.

  • Team Puli

    Team Puli

    Team Puli is a group of young Hungarian professionals and space enthusiasts, named after the Puli, a dog-breed long used by shepherds for the protection and guidance of livestock in Hungary. The team leader is Tibor Pacher.

  • Rocket City Space Pioneers

    Rocket City Space Pioneers

    The Alabama-based Rocket City Space Pioneers team is made up of Dynetics, Teledyne Brown Engineering, Andrews Space, Spaceflight Services, Draper Laboratory, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Moog, the University of Alabama Huntsville, and the Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation. Team leader is Tim Pickens.

  • Selenokhod

    Selenokhod

    Team Selenokhod is the only Russian team in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The team name is derived from Lunokhod — the name of the 1970s Soviet space rovers. Team leader is Nikolay Dzis-Voynarovskiy.

  • Team SpaceIL

    Team SpaceIL

    Team SpaceIL, the only Israeli group entered in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, aims to send its Sparrow lander to the lunar surface, as shown here. Team leader is Yariv Bash.

  • SpaceMETA

    SpaceMETA

    SpaceMETA is a Brazil-based team founded by Sergio Cabral Cavalcanti. Team members include Brazilians with experince in the world of startups and innovation.

  • Stellar

    Image: Stellar lander
    Team Stellar

    The Stellar Eagle lander rolls on the lunar surface in this artist's conception. The team is led by Keith Goeller.

  • Synergy Moon

    Image: Tesla Rover
    Synergy Moon

    The Tesla rover rolls around the moon in this artist's conception from Synergy Moon. The team, led by Miroslav Ambruskis, includes representatives from InterPlanetary Ventures, the Human Synergy Project and Interorbital Systems.

  • Team Italia

    Image: Team Italia concept
    Team Italia via X Prize Foundation

    This is one of the concepts under consideration for Team Italia's AMALIA rover. AMALIA stands for "Ascensio Machinae Ad Lunam Italica Arte" (Latin that roughly translates into "The Ascent of a Machine to the Moon Through Italian Skill"). The name also pays tribute to the team leader, Italian professor Amalia Ercoli-Finzi.

  • White Label Space

    Image: White Label rover
    White Label Space

    White Label Space's rover rolls across the moon in an artist's rendering. The international group's headquarters is in the Netherlands, and its leader is Steve Allen.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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