When people head out on road trips on Earth, they don't usually load up their cars with the exact amount of fuel they are going to need for the journey. When voyaging to space, however, packing the right volume of propellant means the difference between success and failure, because there's no way to refill the gas tank once you're off the planet.
That why NASA is working on a new rover concept called the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR, pronounced "razor"). The agency hopes to overcome the bothersome weight constraint imposed by propellant by mining the surfaces of alien worlds for valuable resources like water, oxygen, and rocket fuel components.
If these materials could be harvested on site instead of being frontloaded into launches, it would vastly reduce the weight and price of interplanetary missions.
Currently in development at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, RASSOR represents a major shift in rover design from delicate scientific laboratories, like the Mars Curiosity rover. Check out how it rolls in this new video—appropriately entitled "Dust to Thrust"—released by KSC on Friday.
Pretty metal, no? The rover's digging bucket wheel drums rotate in opposite directions in order to excavate surface soil while also creating traction. In this particular test, the prototype was paired up with MARCO POLO/Mars Pathfinder spacecraft and put through a series of drills in which it gathered soil and deposited it into a mock oven to be processed.
"This is not your typical NASA rover with lots of very sophisticated instruments on it that are quite fragile," explained Rob Mueller, a senior technologist at KSC's Surface Systems, in a 2013 NASA video on RASSOR. "This is actually a very tough little robot. it can dig, it can climb, it can flip over. If it does flip over, it can right itself up again."
On top of this maneuverability, RASSOR will have to travel five times faster than Curiosity, endure 16-hour shifts for several years at a time, and haul back 40 pounds of surface soil with every prospecting trip. For this reason, NASA has recommended thinking of it as "a blue collar robot."
I guess this means that Curiosity and its kin are the elite intelligentsia robots? Let's hope we are not seeding any class tensions between our robotic explorers. In any event, amidst a news cycle dominated by Elon Musk's lofty vision of human space colonization, RASSOR is a great demonstration of real technologies that could help the first interplanetary settlers to live off the land.