By Tristan Helms | Manager, Space Business Development
A Missing Perspective in Lunar Science
It is easy to look up at the Moon and underestimate its size. Our comparisons to golf balls and cheese wheels do not do it justice; Luna is over 3400km in diameter, about the length of the Appalachian Trail. Similar to the Trail, the Moon is dotted with mountain ranges and peaks over a kilometer high. On Earth, it takes roughly 5-7 months to traverse this distance on foot. While it would likely be an easier journey under 1/6th gravity, our closest neighbor in the solar system is a significant “small body.”
Understanding the surface characteristics of the Moon becomes a significant challenge when acknowledging its expanse. Historically, our approach has been either remarkably broad or remarkably narrow in scope. Spacecraft can assess vast swaths of the surface from orbit, but lack granular details as some features are difficult to detect from afar. On the other end of the spectrum are landers and rovers, able to implement detailed investigations of the surface, but traditionally limited to a small area. Opportunity, the furthest traversing Mars rover, covered 45 kilometers over its 14-year lifespan. An impressive feat, but still a drop in the bucket when compared to the scale of the sprawling lunar landscape.
Returning Man to the Moon – and establishing a sustainable human presence – requires an understanding of the expansive Lunar surface that is both broad and deep. Finding an appropriate site for human activity is no simple task; topography, geological composition, and access to particular lunar orbits are all critical considerations. An investigation of the Lunar surface that covers the 100’s of kilometers necessary to evaluate the wide variety of lunar topographies, yet does so with a precision that allows us to understand a region’s geological composition, is a necessary precursor to a continuous human presence on the Moon.
A Mission with both Breadth and Depth
NASA is funding a detailed study of an innovative mission concept that aims to address this gap in understanding – Intrepid, a Lunar rover capable of detailed surface investigation over the longest distance in NASA’s long history of robotic rovers. The Intrepid mission study is being helmed by Professor Mark Robinson of Arizona State University. Professor Robinson has partnered with First Mode to design and configure the rover, given our experience with long-duration planetary surface missions, robotic rovers and surface sampling systems.
Intrepid is a new type of rover designed for duration and distance. It will use a plutonium-powered Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). First Mode’s team has experience integrating this safe, long-duration power source in the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, and has selected it for Intrepid as well.
Yet the size of Intrepid is roughly half that of Curiosity – 425 kilograms and about 1.2 x 1.0 x 0.5 meters in dimension, roughly the size of a Quad bike/ATV. Thus, Intrepid is built like an endurance runner – smaller in size but with abundant energy for its long journey.
In addition to the power source, the mobility system is receiving special attention. Intrepid will traverse a wide variety of topographies and very significant distances; a motor, wheel, and suspension system that is long-lived, robust, yet flexible is necessary. These requirements are at odds with limitations to the size and mass of the system given the challenge of launching payloads to the Moon. A careful balance must be struck between operational requirements and launch constraints.
Intrepid will use include a suite of 11 instruments integrated into its body, navigational mast, and extendable robotic arm. These instruments will make a variety of measurements to improve our understanding of Lunar geology, identify hydrogen content and chemical composition of the regolith, measure surface radiation, and map the solar wind across the surface.
Combined with the MMRTG and complement of scientific payloads, Intrepid would traverse an unprecedented 1,800 kilometers over 4 years, taking detailed measurements at over 100 major sites which have only ever been viewed from orbit.
High-priority targets include: (1) the Reiner Gamma magnetic anomaly which is one of the strongest lunar magnetic fields; (2) a variety of volcanic landforms known as the Marius Hills; (3) one of the largest pyroclastic deposits on the Moon, the Aristarchus plateau; (4) the Aristarchus crater, which exposes an enigmatic suite of crustal rocks; (5) and an example of Irregular Mare Patches that are thought to have formed as relatively recent lava flows (tens of millions of years ago).
Enabling a Sustained Human Lunar Presence
The science derived from Intrepid’s efforts will help us to understand suitable locations for human exploration and sustained surface operations. Most important is the mapping of hydrogen across the lunar surface. Hydrogen is a proxy for water content, and utilization of water in the regolith is critical to nearly every strategy for a prolonged human presence on the Moon.
Water is an obvious requirement for life. Yet, it has a multitude of uses in space exploration, from creating rocket fuel to providing shielding from radiation. An understanding of the distribution, concentration, and form across hundreds of locations will allow us to select sites for manned landing and exploration intelligently.
Mapping of the chemical composition of the regolith can enable additional in-situ resource utilization – such as 3D printing of structures and tools without having to launch the necessary materials from Earth. An understanding of the surface radiation and solar winds can highlight areas suitable for human activity. The combination of these detailed surface measurements with the wide variety of investigation sites yields a data set that is extremely impactful to both the Planetary Science community and NASA’s human exploration efforts.
At First Mode, we are thrilled by the opportunity to partner with Professor Robinson in support of the Intrepid mission concept. The potential to extend our understanding of Lunar and Planetary Science, while simultaneously extending the reach of human’s presence in the solar system, makes Intrepid exceptionally impactful. We look forward to sharing more about Intrepid soon!
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