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At 100 pounds and just 2.5-feet tall, NASA's newest planet-roaming robot could easily become roadkill in a match-up with the one-ton Mars Curiosity rover. Fortunately, this little robot isn't headed for the Red Planet any time soon. The RASSOR (pronounced "razor") is still in the very early stages of design. When it finally does lift off the ground, it will be flying to the moon with the task of digging up lunar soil.
A current prototype of the RASSOR looks like a miniature tank with tracks for zooming around the moon's surface at a top speed of around 20 centimeters per second or .44 miles per hour. Sure, it's no NASCAR, but that's about five times faster than Curiosity.
The moon only has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, so building a robot that is light enough to fly on a rocket, but hefty enough to complete excavation tasks has been the key challenge. Engineers think they have solved this by attaching two bucket drums to moving arms on either side of the robot's body. One bucket drum will skim the soil (rather than scooping up big loads like a bulldozer), while the other drum acts as a grip so the whole machine doesn't tip over. The drums also act as legs, so the mobile digger can climb over big rocks, or easily morph into different shapes.
Next, the robot will dump the soil "into a device that would pull water and ice out of the dirt and turn their chemicals into rocket fuel or breathing air for astronauts working on the surface," according to a NASA press release.
"The device would be part of the lander that carries the RASSOR to the moon's surface. So the robot would be the feeder for a lunar resource processing plant, a level of industry never before tried anywhere besides Earth."
Scientists think this concept could also work on Mars, since the soil at the planet's poles is believed to hold lots of water ice.
Since rocket fuel is very heavy, being able to produce propellant on the moon would save money and free up space for other cargo.
There's just one catch: The RASSOR would need to operate about 16 hours a day for five years to gather up enough soil in order to produce a meaningful amount of fuel.
Guess that means NASA needs to get crackin' on improving this little buddy, or send multiple up to the moon at once.
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