CubeSats made reaching low-Earth orbit not only possible but affordable for companies and universities around the world. Companies like Planet use the tiny satellites to take thousands of images of Earth. These pictures are then used to provide data on everything from crops to disaster response.

CubeSats are leading a new push into low-Earth orbit. But what about the future? Astrobotic wants to go beyond low-Earth orbit. What if the same accessibility CubeSats offer customers in low-Earth orbit could be offered on the surface of the moon, Mars and beyond?

Astrobotic, partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, announced today they have been selected by NASA to develop CubeRover. A class of 2-kg rover platforms that could perform small-scale science collection and exploration on another world.

“Standardizing rover design at the small scale will open access to planetary bodies for companies, governments, and universities around the world, just as the CubeSat has in Earth orbit,” says Andrew Horchler, Principal Investigator of the program at Astrobotic.

Imagine if a future mission to Mars dropped one big rover and six CubeRovers. The main rover could be the big science-gathering mission, while the smaller CubeRovers head off in different directions to gather basic readings and take high-res images. Or, scientists could pack specific instruments into the 2-kg frame. Say, a rover for exploring Martian dunes. Or, one with an even better camera.

The uses are endless. CubeRovers could be used to scout ahead to make sure the primary rover can maneuver safely.

Plus, it could open worlds up beyond Earth only accessible by a select few space agencies. Only NASA has put a functioning lander/rover on Mars.

“CubeSats revolutionized the frequency and economy of missions to orbit. CubeRovers will similarly revolutionize surface exploration. In planetary robotics, small is the next big thing,” says Dr. William Whittaker, Astrobotic Chairman and Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

CubeRovers is just one avenue NASA and its partners are exploring. PUFFER is another concept in development at NASA’s JPL. It stands for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot and is designed primarily as a companion for a larger rover.

There’s room for both. PUFFER is designed specifically as a companion to its parent rover. CubeRovers will be more like CubeSats. Standalone.

Astrobotic’s first CubeRover will be capable of examining lunar lander ejecta (material thrown up from impact) and “characterizing surface mobility.”

Obviously, Astrobotic is in the beginning stages of the CubeRover. Phase 1 is expected to last six months (Dec. 2017). After that, they will pursue Phase 2 funding for two more years. Astrobotic tells me they expect to be at TRL 6 in late 2019 with an advanced prototype tested in a relevant environment (not space).

TRL stands for Technology Readiness Level. It goes from TRL 1 (proof-of-concept) to TRL 9 (flight proven through a successful mission). TRL 6 is a fully functional prototype. TRL 7 would be a demonstration in a space environment. TRL 8 means the system is “flight qualified.” Here’s a handy NASA chart showing each TRL.

NASA technology readiness level

The leaps and bounds in space over the past 15 years has been exciting to watch. Low-Earth orbit was once unreachable for many universities and companies around the world. Today, hundreds of CubeSats perform all kinds of missions. Will the next 15 years bring the same accessibility to our neighboring worlds? Astrobotics is working on making that a reality.

When I’m not playing Rocket League (best game ever), you can find me writing about all things games, space and more. You can reach me at alex@newsledge.com

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