NASA’s Resource Prospector Prototype Takes Initial Test Drive

The rover perches atop “Mount Kosmo” rock yard at Johnson during its first test drive. (Credit: NASA)
The rover perches atop “Mount Kosmo” rock yard at Johnson during its first test drive. (Credit: NASA)

By Denise M. Stefula

The Human Robotic Systems’ (HRS) rover technologies element that supports Advanced Exploration System’s Resource Prospector (RP) Mission, RP15, successfully demonstrated mobility during initial testing on August 5 at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“Our work during 2015 kick starts the progression toward flight,” says Bill Bluethmann, project manager for HRS. “By conceptualizing, designing, assembling, and testing in a single year, the team made significant progress advancing our rover technologies toward TRL 6 before handing off to Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) for the flight work.”

RP’s first test drive proved it can function untethered and drive remotely, but getting there was a stepby-step progression. Bill explains that the team’s problem-solving approach was to build a little, test a little, and then make incremental improvements.

The team poses with the rover prototype while readying it for first movement scheduled in July. (Credit: NASA)
The team poses with the rover prototype while readying it for first movement scheduled in July. (Credit: NASA)

“During the rover’s first visit to the JSC rock yard, the active suspension was not ready to be tested,” says Bill as he shares an example of that methodology “The rover struggled during its initial climb of “Mount Kosmo”, because the loads did not balance very well across the four wheels. The next day, the team updated the software/firmware and the rover drove right up the same hill it struggled to scale the previous day. The team worked extremely hard against a very aggressive schedule and we are all quite pleased with the accomplishments.”

In addition to its mobility, the rover is integrated with the science payload and mission operations systems and completed two weeks of consolidated testing at the end of August. These tests involved remote driving from Ames Research Center, prospecting and processing lunar regolith simulant, and driving on rocky terrain with slopes up to 20 degrees. Further capabilities to be evaluated with the prototype include gravity offload testing in the Active Response Gravity Offload System.

Concept for the Resource Prospector rover. (Credit: NASA)
Concept for the Resource Prospector rover. (Credit: NASA)

“The goal of the 2015 plan was to build mobility, with outdoor testing with the Resource Prospector science payload in the JSC rock yard,” says Bill “Next steps for the team are to continue advancing the technology through environmental testing at the centers, including thermal vacuum, shock/vibration and gravity offload and continued development of readiness for the various systems.”

Another thing pleasing Bill about the rover technologies work is what he describes as effective team efforts on many levels. “The partnership with the rover between the Game Changing Development (GCD) Program and AES is the model for how a technology program should interface with flight programs.”

GCD and HRS are developing rover technologies to TRL 6 and then transitioning them to AES for flight development.

Many of the technologies within the rover are new and game changing, including the active suspension, the offset crab steering, and the approaches for controlling remote systems over intermediate (<30 seconds) time delay.

“Resource Prospector is important because recent missions have identified volatiles (in water-ice) at the lunar poles,” says Bill. “The RP Mission seeks to determine the distribution of these volatiles both across the surface and at depth.”

The ultimate goal for RP15 is to progress toward performing in situ resource utilization on the lunar surface that will potentially enable the creation of a fuel depot using these volatiles.