Cornell University and The Planetary Society have received a NASA grant to study "Microrovers Assisting Human Presence on the Moon and Mars." The Planetary Society has long been intrigued by the possibilities of microrovers -- by which we mean rovers with a mass of a few kilograms. This study will give us an opportunity to better understand and define microrovers: what they could do, how they might be important, and what their designs should include.
The story of this NASA grant program begins with a Planetary Society member, Ralph Steckler. He left a bequest to NASA -- with The Planetary Society as the backup recipient if NASA couldn't take the money -- "for the colonization of space because [he believed] this is for the betterment of mankind." NASA found a way to utilize the money by creating the Ralph Steckler/Space Grant Space Colonization Research and Technology Development Opportunity.
The program is open to proposals only from NASA Space Grant University leads—one in each state. Because of their rover expertise, we approached folks at Cornell University with the idea of using microrovers as assistants to human exploration. We started the discussion with Jim Bell, who is Planetary Society president, a Cornell professor, and Mars Exploration Rovers Pancam lead. Jim signed on as a co-investigator on the proposal, and the New York Space Grant director, Professor Yervant Terzian, agreed to head up the proposal to the Steckler grant program.
Our proposal was one of 18 selected by NASA to receive Phase 1 funding. The Planetary Society managed and coordinated all technical studies and input, as well as worked on various aspects of the project. The Planetary Society has a long history with planetary rovers. It carried out rover testing in the early 1990s in the Mojave Desert, which helped raise the profile of rovers and pave the way to what became Sojourner and, later, the Mars Exploration Rovers. By the way, all three Mars rovers -- Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity -- were named through contests run or co-run by The Planetary Society for NASA.
NASA and other countries have studied large rovers designed to carry humans, medium-sized robotic rovers like those used now on Mars, and even a low-gravity "nano?rover," but there is a largely unstudied niche of microrovers, which we loosely define as rovers with masses of one to a few kilograms. Even less studied is how they might work with humans on the Moon, Mars, or other bodies.
Because of their low cost and mass, several microrovers could be used at an outpost and would be easy to customize and deploy. Think how much easier it would be to include a few microrovers on a robotic precursor or on a human mission than to include a single rover with a mass of many hundreds of kilograms.
Microrovers could assist human explorers with basic tasks outside their habitat while humans remain safely in?side, thus increasing efficiency and safety as well as helping to limit extravehicular activities to human-optimized tasks. Our project will address the capabilities that microrovers could and should have to assist humans, including facilities for inspection, science, and reconnaissance.
Also, let's face it -- they're cool! That's not enough to motivate studying them, but it sure makes the project and the vision more fun. Imagine astronauts carrying a few of these intrepid explorers with them to a planetary surface. They would "release" them to do reconnaissance around the site so that when the astronauts went outside, which is always dangerous work, they could focus on the most promising discoveries already made by the microrovers. The microrovers could be teleoperated (joysticked) by astronauts or from the ground, or they could operate autonomously. They also could explore areas considered too dangerous for astronauts to visit.