ROBOT IN A DEEP HOLE
William 'Red' Whittaker hopes that by 2015, his
robot — or something like it — will be rappelling
down a very deep hole on the Moon.
This hole was discovered a little over three years
ago when Japanese researchers published images from
the satellite SELENE1. However, spacecraft orbiting the
Moon have been unable to see into its shadowy
“This is authentic exploration. This is the real
deal,” says Whittaker — a roboticist at Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA — whose robots
have descended into an Alaskan volcano, and also
helped to clean up the Three Mile Island nuclear
power plant. “This is really going where none have
Over the next two years, the NIAC (NASA
Innovative Advanced Concepts) program will spend
about $500,000 USD developing Whittaker's creations.
The prototype he tested at a coal mine could be
lowered into the revealed Moon pit to check the walls for
openings.A more ambitious approach would be to have a
robot that jumps down the hole or lowers itself using a cable.
The first prototype of such a machine — a four-wheeled cave
crawler — can drive itself around underground and is already
practicing in the mine's tunnels. Onboard lasers sweep the
floors, walls, and ceilings to map out the tunnels.
Ever since the hole was discovered, researchers have
been keen to work out its origin. Estimated to be about 65
meters wide and at least 80 meters deep, it seems too big to
be just a crater. Plus, its location in the once-volcanic Marius
Hills region suggests that the opening is a 'skylight' — an
entrance to an intact horizontal tunnel beneath the surface,
carved long ago by flowing lava.
Lava tubes have long been considered good locations for
building lunar bases. “Their rocky ceilings can protect humans
William Whittaker's cave-crawling robot could one day explore lunar caverns.
from micrometeorite impacts and cosmic rays,” says Carolyn
van der Bogert, a geologist at the University of Münster in
Protected Moon caves may also house records of the
history of the Moon and solar system. Rocks that have been
shielded from damage could look just like the surface did
when it first cooled, or have textures that have been molded
by hidden processes going on inside the Moon, explains
Penelope Boston, a cave scientist and astrobiologist at New
Mexico Tech in Socorro. Solar wind particles implanted
billions of years ago could also provide clues about the early
evolution of the Sun, according to van der Bogert.
“We don't really know what's down there,” says Boston.
“We might be punching down through to a deeper layer that
we have not seen from the small amount of lunar material
collected at the surface.”
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