Researchers design a robot to explore the moon's mysterious volcanic caverns

Three years ago, Japanese researchers discovered a cavern on the moon using the SELENE satellite. It's estimated that the subterranean structure is 65 meters wide and at least 80 meters in depth. Given that it's too deep to be a crater, and that it was likely carved by lava, it's a natural cavern that's just begging to be explored. And indeed, plans are already underway to build a cave-crawling robot that might just be up to the task.

The spelunking robot is currently being developed by William 'Red' Whittaker and his team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And Whittaker is no stranger to getting robots into tight places; he has developed robots that descended into an Alaskan volcano and Three Mile Island to assist during the clean-up.

But now, as Devin Powell from Nature News reports, Whittaker has bigger ideas:

Over the next two years, the [NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC)] programme will spend about US$500,000 developing Whittaker's creations. The prototype he tested at the coal mine could be lowered into the Moon pit to check the walls for openings. But a more ambitious approach would be a robot that jumps down the hole or lowers itself using a cable. The first prototype of such a machine, a four-wheeled Cave Crawler, can drive itself around underground and is already practising in the mine's tunnels. Onboard lasers sweep the floors, walls and ceilings to map out the tunnels.

And interestingly, the so-called "lava tubes" that the robot will explore could serve as good locations for future lunar bases. As Geologist Carolyn van der Bogert told Nature, "Their rocky ceilings can protect humans from micrometeorite impacts and cosmic rays."

Now, it has to be said that the prototype being developed by Whittaker is severely lacking in imagination. The large, clunky four-wheeled rover like the one portrayed in his demo video would likely face obstacles far more severe than the ones found in abandoned mines.

Instead, the researchers should focus their efforts on biomimicry and the development of adaptable and resilient animal-like bots that can crawl or roll around the caverns. The hexapod is a good example — a spider-like robot that would stand a far better chance against the unpredictable subterranean elements than a four-wheeled scout.

As for a flying robot like the ones portrayed in the film Prometheus, that would be a bit more challenging to develop given that the moon doesn't have an atmosphere to provide wind resistance.

But seeing that the roboticists are just getting started on the project, it's a safe bet that more sophisticated versions will eventually be developed.

Top image from Prometheus via.