Now that NASA is pretty sure there's water on the Moon and Mars, the next step is extracting it for us to use. It's not like NASA can just send some astronauts up with jackhammers, though: digging on the Moon will require a robot, so it's a good thing NASA has just the right one for the job.
RASSOR, short for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot, is a tank-like robot with spinning digging drums for arms. The 100-pound prototype robot is designed to dig up lunar soil and transfer it to a processing unit for automatic water and ice extraction. The goal is to ultimately turn the chemicals within the soil into "rocket fuel or breathing air for astronauts working on the surface" of the Moon. Sounds like a good start for a lunar colony, doesn't it?
RASSOR engineer A.J. Nick says that designing the robot has been challenging for a number of reasons. For starters, they needed to make sure RASSOR was light enough to launch on a rocket, but heavy enough to work in places where gravity is much lower than on Earth. Then there's the matter of movement. While RASSOR can use its drum arms to "flip itself over to get unstuck from fine soil," its gears are also prone to getting gunked up with pebbles and sand particles, which causes its rubber tracks to slip off. Rachel Cox, another RASSOR engineer, says they're still ironing out the kinks and could swap out the tracks for wheels. Yet another challenge is getting the RASSOR to work 16 hours a day for five consecutive days (it gets weekends off!) without breaking down.
As impressive as the RASSOR prototype sounds; it's just that — a prototype that won't be going to the Moon. Now, the RASSOR 2 that NASA is currently designing… That could be the robot that actually starts doing the dirty work.