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Lunar robot fleet in the works
San Francisco Chronicle


June 06, 2006

NASA has assigned scientists and engineers to develop a fleet of small robotic spacecraft to orbit the moon and sample its surface before astronauts again land there within the next 15 years.

The missions would be a major prelude to the space agency's Constellation program, the name given for President Bush's proclaimed U.S. goal to send humans to Mars after first establishing manned lunar bases.

The small unmanned lunar craft would seek to learn more about the nature of the moon's dusty surface, to land on nearby asteroids and to survey possible landing sites for the human crews to come.




Simon "Pete" Worden, director of the Ames Research Center in San Francisco where the robots are to be developed, said Monday he envisions a whole series of "cool" missions that his team of experts will be building in partnership with aerospace companies. The missions would be "low cost and fast paced," he said.

In space-agency talk, that means the small spacecraft coming out of Ames will weigh only a few hundred pounds, cost only tens of millions of dollars rather hundreds of millions, and be developed, built and launched in as little as two years.

The cost of the entire manned moon program - including the new spacecraft that will replace the aging space shuttle fleet by 2014 - has been estimated by congressional staff members at $125 billion. NASA hopes to have astronauts on the moon by 2020.

At a Washington news conference Monday, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said a number of assignments have been reshuffled among the agency's 10 space centers. Ames will lose its job of running a new robotics technology program office, but will acquire responsibility for the "small satellite" projects, with their tasks to scout out the lunar territory before humans get there.

Worden noted that Ames engineers are already developing a 1,200-pound lunar orbiting spacecraft that will fly aboard a much larger craft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008.

After reaching the moon, the small craft from Ames will be designed to fly on its own and fire two projectiles into the dark bottom of the Shackleton crater near the moon's south pole, kicking up a large dust cloud. The small spacecraft will then seek evidence in the dust of water ice and surface minerals, materials that could be used to build habitats for future astronauts. That mission, Worden said, will cost about $70 million.

NASA also has assigned Ames to develop new heat shields for the agency's crew exploration vehicles, known as CEV, the fleet of manned spacecraft that will replace the space shuttles.

The CEV missions will be used to complete the international space station that is now orbiting the Earth with its downsized crew of two astronauts - a Russian and an American - who have little to do aside from maintaining their orbital home and checking on the effects of weightlessness on their own bodies.

Engineers at the Ames center are also being assigned to develop computer tools for flight controllers during the future manned missions, as well as software for assessing risks during those flights and new systems to monitor the health of astronauts who will fly aboard other new spacecraft called crew launch vehicles. Those are the ships that will carry the crew exploration vehicles up into near-Earth space for their voyages on to the moon.

"There's a lot of excitement here for doing something fast-paced, that's pretty cool and glamorous," Worden said.


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