NASA's New Lunar Rover Solves Deep Space Exploration's Core Problem

Tuesday, 19 December 2017 - 11:24AM
Space
Technology
Tuesday, 19 December 2017 - 11:24AM
NASA's New Lunar Rover Solves Deep Space Exploration's Core Problem
Image credit: YouTube
One of the biggest challenges facing launching deep space missions is one of the most obvious: rocket fuel. It's essential for exploring space, but it's incredibly difficult to transport into space due to its weight.

In order to blast off to Mars, a spaceship needs fuel, and that fuel typically comes from Earth. Fuel weighs a lot, and in order to get it up into the air for a rocket to blast off to Mars, more fuel needs to be expended simply breaking free from Earth's gravity.

If only there was a large supply of rocket fuel somewhere in Earth's orbit already that could be used to fill up the tanks on a Martian exploration mission before the crew takes off on their journey. 

Chasing this dream, NASA is currently working on a lunar rover that will scour the moon for a supply of water that can be turned into rocket fuel.

Meet the Resource Prospector—a tiny droid that exists for the sole purpose of tracking down a large enough supply of hydrogen to help get humanity to Mars.



NASA has been working on Resource Prospector for about three years now, following speculation and planning that came as a result of the 2009 discovery that a body of water currently exists permanently in a basin on the moon.

Some looked at this water supply as an opportunity for a colony, but NASA has another plan.

Resource Prospector is designed to test the surface of the moon for traces of hydrogen, which is a component of water, and which can be broken down and used for rocket fuel.

The little robot will then drill down into the ground to see what's hiding underneath, and should anything look suitably like a chunk of frozen ice, Resource Prospector will heat it up to see what happens.

If this rover is able to do its job correctly, NASA scientists envision a trip to Mars where, instead of lugging huge amounts of rocket fuel up off our planet's surface, astronauts can instead mine the moon for the fuel they need, taking it from the lunar surface, which has a far lower gravity that will be easier to escape from as the crew then travel on to the Red Planet.



This plan seems sound, but it is a little concerning to think of future astronauts literally burning away the moon's finite supply of water in an attempt to get to Mars.

While the Earth has an abundance of water (some might say, too much water in some places thanks to the effects of climate change), the moon's supply will run dry fairly quickly if used for repeated Martian trips. Once that water is gone, it's gone forever.

Considering that we're still a long way from being able to send humans off to Mars, it might be better for NASA to focus on alternative forms of space travel, such as developing ion energy technology, rather than hoping to fritter away the precious resources contained within our own planetary system.

But, then, this is a lesson that humanity is struggling with even on our own planet. It's unlikely that we'll be able to practice conservationism off-world if we can't even avoid using up the natural resources that are closer to home.
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NASA's New Lunar Rover Solves Deep Space Exploration's Core Problem
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