NASA's mini rovers to embark on autonomous lunar exploration

NASA's mini-rovers are set to autonomously demonstrate teamwork and navigation on the Moon, showcasing a pivotal advancement in space exploration.
Rizwan Choudhury
An engineer tests a prototype rover model for NASA's CADRE tech demo at JPL's Mars Yard.
An engineer tests a prototype rover model for NASA's CADRE tech demo at JPL's Mars Yard.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech  

NASA is trying to achieve a fully autonomous system in its new rovers, which could prove to be a huge leap in the Space exploration realm.

In a press release, the space agency briefly explained how it will be sending a team of mini-rovers to the Moon to test their teamwork skills without any human guidance. The rovers, each about the size of a suitcase, will land on the lunar surface in 2024 and perform a series of experiments to demonstrate how they can cooperate autonomously. This could pave the way for future missions that use multiple robots to explore new places or assist astronauts.

A new way of exploring

The project, called CADRE (Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration), is part of NASA’s CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) initiative, which aims to deliver science and technology payloads to the Moon using commercial landers. The three rovers will catch a ride on one of these landers and be lowered onto the Reiner Gamma region of the Moon, where they will charge their solar panels and get ready for the experiments.

The rovers will only receive a general goal from mission controllers on Earth, such as "Go explore this region." Then they will decide among themselves who will be the leader and how to divide the tasks. Each rover will use its sensors and radios to navigate safely and communicate with its teammates.

"The only instruction is, for example, ‘Go explore this region,’ and the rovers figure out everything else: when they’ll do the driving, what path they’ll take, how they’ll maneuver around local hazards," said JPL’s Jean-Pierre de la Croix, CADRE’s principal investigator. "You only tell them the high-level goal, and they have to determine how to accomplish it."

Challenges and opportunities

The rovers will face several challenges during their 14-day mission. They will have to drive in formation and stay on course while avoiding obstacles. They will also have to map a large area of about 4,300 square feet (400 square meters) using their stereo cameras. NASA says that they are also programmed to cope with any failures or malfunctions that might occur.

The rovers will also carry ground-penetrating radars that can scan up to 33 feet (10 meters) below the surface. By driving in formation and sending each other radio signals, they will create a 3D image of the subsurface structure. NASA says this would allow, for the first time, the gathering of data from simultaneous regions on the lunar surface at the same time. This could enable new scientific discoveries or help find resources for future lunar explorers.

"We’ll see how multiple robots working together—doing multiple measurements in different places at the same time – can record data that would be impossible for a single robot to achieve," said Subha Comandur, the CADRE project manager at JPL. "It could be a game-changing way of doing science."

NASA's mini rovers to embark on autonomous lunar exploration
At JPL's Mars Yard, the CADRE test rover attracts the notice of OPTIMISM, NASA's larger engineering model of the Perseverance rover.

Surviving the harsh weather conditions

But there are more challenges to CADRE than testing autonomy and teamwork capabilities: The rovers also need to survive the harsh thermal environment near the Moon’s equator, which poses a challenge for such small robots. In the searing sunlight, the rovers could face midday temperatures of up to 237 degrees Fahrenheit (114 Celsius).

Thankfully, NASA asserted that they are made with a combination of commercial off-the-shelf parts and custom-built components, which should prove robust enough to make it through the daytime heat while being compact and lightweight.

At the same time, they must possess sufficient computing capability to execute the JPL-developed cooperative autonomy software—a difficult balance to maintain. The project's rovers and base station derive their cognitive prowess from a compact processing chip fitted into the rover, which is quite similar to the chips used in our smartphones. Similarly, the processor generates heat, posing a challenge that must be addressed.

To prevent the rovers from overheating and breaking down, the CADRE team came up with a creative solution: 30-minute wake-sleep cycles. Every half-hour, the rovers will shut down, cooling off via radiators and recharging their batteries. When they simultaneously awaken, they’ll share their health status with one another via a mesh radio network (similar to something like a home Wi-Fi network) and once again elect a leader based on which is fittest for the task at hand. Then off they’ll go for another round of lunar exploration.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board