NASA's Mini Moon Rovers Take a Test Drive Before 2025 Private Lunar Launch

  • 01-April-2024

NASA conducted a test drive of the small autonomous rovers that will soon travel to the moon and map the lunar surface collectively.

The rovers are a component of the Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration (CADRE) technology demonstration, which aims to demonstrate how a collection of robotic spacecraft can cooperate without direct human supervision. In order to replicate the rough terrain they will encounter on the moon, NASA took the suitcase-sized rovers for a test drive across Mars Yard at the organization's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

NASA released a statement confirming that the mini CADRE rovers were able to drive in unison and modify their coordinated path to avoid obstacles during a series of tests conducted in August 2023 using two full-scale development models while the spacecraft were still under construction.

The solar-powered rovers will be able to map the lunar surface in three dimensions thanks to their ground-penetrating radar, cameras, and sensors. Only one of the rover models had a solar panel stand-in installed during the test drive in August 2023. When a pause was necessary to refuel their solar arrays before continuing their journey together, the other two could tell by reading each other's battery levels.

Additional tests included night drives at Mars Yard under large flood lamps to simulate the extreme shadows and lighting that the rovers will encounter during the lunar daytime, NASA officials said in a statement this month.

In November 2023, vibration and thermal tests were conducted on the rovers after the Mars Yard tests to make sure their hardware could withstand the journey to the moon. A unique "shaker table" that vibrates violently in various directions was clamped to a rover. Additionally, it was kept in a thermal vacuum chamber, which replicates the airless environment and intense heat and cold of space.

In November 2023, the group also tested for electromagnetic interference and compatibility in a specially made radio-absorbing chamber. NASA reports that this demonstrated the rovers' ability to withstand anticipated electromagnetic disturbances and that their electronic subsystems did not interfere with those on the lander or with each other.

Early in March, NASA declared that the three CADRE rovers had finished their testing and construction and were prepared for integration with Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lander. As part of the company's third lunar lander mission, IM-3, the lander will carry the miniature explorers to the lunar surface later this year or early in the following year.

Over the course of a lunar day, which is roughly equal to 14 days on Earth, the rovers will collaborate to investigate the moon's Reiner Gamma region and conduct surface research.

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