You might not think the heat of Qatar’s desert has much in common with the Moon, but a team of German scientists has found it to be the ideal environment to test their prototype Moon rover.
The compact solar-powered rover was developed by the Google Lunar X-Prize team known as “The Part-Time Scientists”, one of 16 teams from around the world competing for the $30m prize.
In order to take home the multi-million dollar prize pot, the team needs to drive their rover a distance of 500m on the lunar surface and send high quality video back to Earth.
With the cost of rocket launches in the millions of dollars, the stakes are high, so ensuring that the rover is ready for the challenges of the lunar surface is imperative.
The rover has already survived gruelling lab-based tests, but this is the first time it has faced the natural extremes of a desert.
“The sand in the desert is more diverse than we expected,” explained Robert Bohme, CEO of PTScientists.
“We identified at least three different surface profiles for testing.”
These difference in surface textures allowed the team to assess how well the rover was able to manoeuvre – and resulted in some unexpected findings.
“The rover performed much better at climbing slopes in reverse than it did going forwards,” said the team’s rover driver, Karsten Becker.
“This is something that we will investigate further when we analyse the full data in our lab in Berlin.”
Using a specialised infrared camera, they were also able to observe how the rover’s 3D-printed wheels absorbed heat from the ground and transferred it to the inner drive motors.
They found that the aluminium wheels radiated heat to the inner electronics faster than expected, but despite reaching temperatures of around 52C none of the electrical components failed.
Further analysis of the results will allow the team to optimise the rover before it is launched to the Moon, which the team hope to manage by late 2017, early 2018.
Perfecting the rover is only part of the challenge teams face.
Ensuring a soft landing on the Moon’s surface also requires significant work.
To overcome this challenge, the PTScientists have designed an autonomous landing module to land the rover on the Moon.
The ALINA spacecraft also includes a propulsion system to transport the rover and the lander to the Moon from Earth-orbit.
As well the capacity to transport two rovers to the lunar surface, ALINA can carry up to 20kg of additional cargo to the Moon.
This means that the team can carry a range of experiments to be conducted on the lunar surface.
The PTScientists hope that their designs will not only win them the Google Lunar X-Prize, but will provide a commercially viable option for lunar science.
If they succeed in bringing down the costs associated with lunar science, it may no longer be limited to national space agencies, but could also be used by universities as a way of inspiring the next generation of space scientists.
Source: Al Jazeera