For a couple of years we've been talking with CMU about providing the robotic element for the Artemis Project. CMU will have the technology for keeping those machines alive and sending high-resolution video back to Earth. They will have worked out all the problems of navigating on the moon and teleoperating the machines. LunaCorp and CMU are partners in this thing, so if they succeed, we all succeed.
We're depending on their success as much as we are on other folks in the industry to develop other key elements of the Artemis Project. For instance, we're hoping that somewhere among all the research on DC-X, X-33, Black Horse, SpaceCub, and all those others, we'll get the commercial passenger rockets we need to make the Luna City Hotel a reality in our lifetimes.
We've also been tossing ideas back and forth about LunaCorp using their expertise in other areas to advance the Artemis Project. One obvious possibility is handling production and distribution of the CD-ROMs we've been talking about. They have a proven track record in that line, while we (the membership of Artemis Society International) are in a position to provide some great content for new CD-ROMs. If we can put something together, it will be a win-win scenario.
Selling a virtual reality experience isn't even in the same ballpark with actually being there. But until we can go there ourselves, it's all we have. Even if everything in the Artemis Project is 100% successful, it will be a very long time before we can get the costs as cheap as a flight from Seattle to Sydney. So for most people alive today, that virtual reality is all they'll have.
If you visit the LunaCorp web site, you'll see they're planning mostly to record the robot's adventure and present it as a ridefilm. I'm second-guessing LunaCorp here, but for all the skull sweat I've put into similar business plans, they should be able to turn over a nice profit on that kind of attraction.
Controlling the robot in real time might be an after-hours attraction. We talked with David Gump about that some time ago, but we haven't yet figured out how to make it balance with an acceptable return on investment.
Of course, controlling a moving vehicle with a full second of data lag would be sporting, and would really not give you an impression of being there. The actual lag, due to transport delays in the data stream, might be several seconds. For example, transport lag in the Shuttle data stream can be as long as five minutes. As for being there, in the simulators, astronauts experience negative training if the visual display gets as much as 1/4 second behind the actual control response.
The rover will have to be mostly autonomous; and to accomplish its mission, it will move very slowly.
Long-distance control is not impossible. A couple of years ago, McDonnell Douglas built a Lunar-Mars rover prototype in a partnership with the Russians. The test team operated the robot remotely, from all the way around the Earth, and inserted transport lag to accommodate teleoperation of a robot on Mars. It worked. The trick is to take your time, planning each move as you go.
Based on all that, my guess is that directly commanding the rover would not be a thrill-ride experience. Some people would get a real kick out of it (many enjoy the space station mobile transporter simulation with its neck-snapping acceleration of about 1/100 g), but for most folks, it would get boring to watch the little robot crawl along. But again, that's not what they're selling. The ridefilm environment can give you a much better feeling of what it will be like to drive your own rover across the moon.
Regarding the technical issues, we can assume the engineers have answered questions about the life of the robot and probability of failure to the satisfaction of the businessmen involved. Mitsubishi is no babe in the woods; this is the company resonsible for the Japanese Experiment Module on the International Space Station. We can also assume they didn't become a giant among the Japanese giants of heavy industry by being financially naive.
The life of the robot is a real concern, of course. The Lunakhod rover froze to death in the dark because its power supply couldn't keep it warm enough. CMU is looking at a more robust power supply, and from the pictures on the LunaCorp web site we can conclude the latest design addresses the need for insulation and heat conservation better than previous concepts. Similarly, we've learned a lot about issues like vacuum welding since the days of Apollo and Lunakhod. (A coating of molybdemum disulfide is the prescription for that particular problem.)
CMU looked at extending the life of the LunarTrek rover to accommodate the needs of the Artemis Project. It might work if we can get one of the rovers to our landing site, and then have our crew refurbish it; but it probably will be less expensive to just fly a new rover to support the Artemis Project mission.
In any case, if we can get people to those Lunar Rover Initiative robots and fix their ailments, we could extend their life; so this new consortium could turn out to be an important customer for the lunar community. I expect that manufacturing explorer robots from lunar material will be a significant industry on the moon for a long time.
When it comes to building manned spacecraft, however, we'll need a team of real experts in that field. A team of LunaCorp, Mitsubishi, and CMU could probably not tackle the human element. But that just means the team will grow as the need arises.
If it turns out that the only thing LunaCorp ever does is telerobot missions, that's still great news for the Artemis Project. They will have developed the pathfinder for commercial enterprise on the moon, and all the technologies mentioned earlier. The worst-case scenario is that somehow they flub the job and scare people away from private space ventures. My guess is that the business expertise of the key players is too strong for that to happen; but if it does, we'll all just keep plugging away until we get there.
In short: This is good. It gets us all closer to the moon.