The Moon Beetle

A robotic prospector prepares for a moon mission in Hawaii’s volcanoes

The Moon Beetle

Blow it up to see what's on board the robotic prospector!David Wintergreen/Carnegie Mellon University

Like most visitors to Hawaii, David Wettergreen spent his two-week trip there in the sand. But instead of sunbathing, he was busy putting Scarab, his robotic moon rover, through rigorous test drives in the lunar-like volcanic ash-filled crater at Mauna Kea.

"We know from satellite surveys that there's hydrogen at the lunar south pole," says Wettergreen, leader of the Scarab project at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute. But scientists need a way to analyze it up close to determine if it's in the form of water ice, which could be converted into drinking water and rocket fuel.

In November, Scarab proved it could handle the task. The five-foot-long rover climbed 28-degree slopes, drilled on an incline, ventured solo in the dark for hours, and avoided obstacles. The team also tested an "inchworm" maneuver—in which the rover locks its front wheels, rolls the rear wheels forward on individual rocker arms, and then locks the rear wheels and rolls the front ones forward—to scale steeper slopes. The battery-powered 'bot accomplished all this on a modest 250 watts. A moon-bound model would require a long-lasting power source, such as a small nuclear-driven piston engine.

This spring, Wettergreen will head to NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio to show off Scarab's hydrogen-hunting abilities and, he hopes, earn additional funding