for National Geographic News
Robots might be the first construction workers on the moon, according to a recent NASA-sponsored study.
The report says two remote-controlled droids could build a landing site for a lunar outpost in less than six months—offering a safer, cheaper alternative to human-powered construction in the early phases of the project.
NASA plans to have a moon base fully operational by 2024. One of the key challenges is first preparing a landing area, because the launchpads would have to protect nearby human habitation, to be built later, from being sandblasted by spacecraft.
"NASA has identified blast debris from takeoffs and landings to be a hazard for its planned moon outpost," said David Gump, president of Astrobotic Technology, Inc., which undertook the new study along with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.
"The problem is real, and the question is how NASA will choose to solve it."
The study concludes that a pair of 330-pound (150-kilogram) robots the size of riding lawn mowers would best get the job done.
The bots' primary mission would be to stabilize patches of loose lunar soil and erect 8.5-foot-tall (2.6-meter-tall) walls around launchpads.
The researchers say they need more information about soil conditions at the lunar poles—the likeliest sites for an outpost—before they could build prototype construction robots.
Gump estimates that two of the bots plus the landing vehicle and pads would cost U.S. $200 to $300 million—and the robots could continue to provide value for the expense after the landing site is complete.
For example, he said, the bots "can be haulage machines to move supplies or samples from place to place and to bring astronauts back to their outpost if they are stranded by a rover malfunction."
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