Polaris is the latest robotic rover getting ready to roll. It's tasked with digging four feet into the surface of the moon to check for the water, oxygen and nitrogen that would be critical in establishing lunar bases there in the future.
Polaris is intended to deploy sometime before
2012 ends by way of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Its ultimate destination is the moon's north pole, where scientists believe they might find the all-important ice they are looking for, more likely in the pole's craters where the water wouldn't be evaporated by the heat of the sun.
The rover will have to be able to roll into those craters and still be able to catch the sun's rays; given that the sun is low in the sky at the poles, Polaris needs to have that odd spine of solar arrays to make sure it gets every bit of sun possible. Polaris needs to generate 250 watts of power to operate its drill. That means positioning is vital, and the rover will use software written by those robo-nuts at Carnegie Mellon University to position itself to get the most sun possible.
One lunar day is rougly 29 of our days long, with a good 10 days worth of daylight. During that time, the rover will try to dig at over 100 sites over the span of three miles. Then comes a two-week lunar night, when the temperature plunges. If the rover can survive beyond the initial 10-day mission and through a night, researchers hope Polaris will be able to operate indefinitely.
As you can see in the image above, Polaris, like Curiosity, is pretty large. It's five and a half feet high, seven feet wide and eight feet long. It is relatively lightweight at 150 pounds, built out of alloys and composites that won't contaminate any samples. It will also able to carry another 150 pounds, plus its all-important drill.
Polaris's wheels are also custom-built for the task. The two-foot wheels, also made from composite, are built with a special suspension system that will allow the rover to navigate the rougher terrain of the craters along the northern pole, steady as she goes at around one foot per second.
Astrobiotic Technology, a specialized company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University, built the Polaris Rover prototype. NASA is currently funding the project and supplying specialized ice-prospecting gear. The team is hoping to get more funding, possibly from Google's Lunar X Prize, to continue refining the prototype and its software.
The Polaris mission could be able to answer some questions we have around the prospects of building bases on the moon. To see Polaris take a stroll, check out the video below.
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Polaris would ship out by 2012. The correct proposed year for its deployment is 2016.