Last month, as astronaut Chris Cassidy orbited Earth in the International Space Station, he remotely directed a NASA rover in California to roll out an antenna film -- a technology that CU scientists are developing. The experiment was monumental because it showed that an astronaut in orbiting spacecraft would be capable of controlling a robot, in real time, on a planetary surface.
Jack Burns, director of CU's Lunar University Network for Astrophysics (or LUNAR for short), has a goal of placing the radio telescope on the far side of the moon so it could pick up "faint whispers" from distant regions of space.
The potential? The instrument could unlock secrets about a young universe -- about 100 million years after the Big Bang -- and at a time when stars and galaxies were being born.
Burns, a professor in CU's Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, said the unique telescope would allow scientists to address fundamental questions about the very early universe.
"It would open up a time period in the universe that we are not able to explore with any other technique or technology," he said.
Radio astronomy has been used in some major discoveries, including the detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation that provides evidence to support the Big Bang.
NASA agreed to use Burns' vision as a test scenario, and the successful trial in June allowed Cassidy to pilot a K10 robot for three hours. The robot is a four-wheel-drive rover that is roughly 4 1/2 feet tall and weighs 220 pounds. It moves about 3 feet per second, which is a little slower pace than most walk.
The robot moved about a mock lunar surface that was roughly the size of two football fields. Two more trials are planned for later this summer.
To help test the idea born at CU, researchers, including graduate student Laura Kruger, partnered with NASA's Human Exploration Telerobotics project -- which was already working on the technology that would allow robots on a planetary surface to be controlled from orbit.
Being able to place the radio telescope on the far side of the moon is important because it would shield the receivers from the radio cacophony coming from Earth.
"The land area at the far side of the moon is twice as large as the United States," Burns said. "It's a big piece of property. We haven't set foot there, either robotically or with humans, and it's right in our back yard -- just three days away."
NASA's Orion spacecraft will soon make sending astronauts to a location 60,000 kilometers above the far side of the moon possible. That spot is known as the "L2 Earth-moon Lagrange point," and the combined gravity of the Earth and the moon would allow for the spacecraft to maintain a stationary orbit. From there, Burns and his colleagues believe a rover could be sent to the moon's surface and manipulated to roll out a "Kapton film" that would contain the radio antennas, according to CU.
"During future missions beyond low-Earth orbit, some work will not be feasible for humans to do manually," Terry Fong, director of NASA's Intelligent Robotics Group, said in a news release. "Robots will complement human explorers, allowing astronauts to perform work via remote control from a space station, spacecraft or other habitat."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.