While the Moon may or may not contain life forms, precious metals or even green cheese, recent satellite missions have indicated that it does nonetheless contain something that could prove quite valuable – water ice. NASA has estimated that at least 650 million tons (600 million tonnes) of the stuff could be deposited in craters near the Moon’s north pole alone. If mined, it could conceivably serve as a source of life support for future lunar bases, or it could be used to produce fuel for spacecraft stopping at a “lunar gas station.” Before any mining can happen, however, we need to learn more about the ice. That’s why NASA has contracted Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology to determine if its Polaris rover robot could be used for ice prospecting.

Astrobotic has been developing Polaris since 2009, funded by a series of NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts totaling US$795,000 – so far. The latest SBIR contract is aimed specifically at analyzing how the rover would need to be refined in order to carry a payload of ice-prospecting gear.

That gear would include a drill, which would be used to take core samples from the polar ice deposits. Onboard NASA-supplied scientific instruments would subsequently analyze the content of those samples – the satellite studies have determined that elements including water, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide should be present. The sampling would also be used to determine whether or not the ice deposits were concentrated enough to make mining feasible.

The entire ice prospecting payload would have to be within the rover’s carrying capacity limit of 80 kilograms (176 lbs).

Already, Astrobotic has reserved the use of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle to send a spacecraft containing Polaris on a trajectory toward the Moon, for a planned 2015 prospecting mission. That spacecraft should be able to deliver the robot safely to the lunar surface, using a system that allows it to automatically avoid landing hazards such as large rocks or craters – that system is based on technology developed by Astrobotic founder Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, which he previously used in a driverless car to win the DARPA Urban Challenge.

Once deployed, the 150-kilogram (331-lb) four-wheeled rover would use its three solar panels to generate 250 watts of power, allowing it to travel at speeds up to 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) per second. It could navigate autonomously using 3D laser scan mapping and stereo 3D HD cameras, although it could also be controlled from Earth via its S-band antenna – this would be capable of sending video and data, and receiving commands. The robot could cover rough terrain by raising its suspension, although when it came time to drill a core sample, it could lower that suspension in order to hunker itself down.

Polaris could have some robotic company on the Moon, however. Carnegie Mellon University (which Astrobotic is a spin-off company of) has been developing a lunar prospecting rover of its own, known as Scarab.