NASA scientists befuddled after cancellation of lunar robotics program

Mood of consternation and uncertainty as space agency's outgoing leader announces plans to scrap robot mining mission

NASA is pulling the plug on a program aimed at landing a robot on the moon.

The cancellation announcement comes during a leadership transition at NASA. The affected program was cancelled by the agency's acting director Robert Lightfoot. The announcement came the same day incoming NASA administrator and Trump appointee Jim Bridenstine was sworn in.

The program, called Resource Prospector, would utilize a robot capable of mining materials like oxygen and water from the lunar surface.

Although scientists know some things about the composition of the moon and have confirmed the presence of ice crystals, most of that data has been collected via observations made by a circling orbiter, and questions remain.

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It isn't clear how easy it is to access the ice, which is located at the moon's poles, for example. Resource Prospector would allow scientists to excavate and examine the composition of the ice crystals up close, potentially revealing information that could aid future lunar missions.

It's long been theorized that the ice might be used to create drinkable water.

There's been some outcry within NASA following the program's surprise cancellation. The Verge is reporting that the program's fate may be tied to its recent relocation to a different NASA directorate. Previously funded with money set aside for human exploration, the program recently came under a more constrained budget tied to scientific research.

In a tweet, Bridenstine said that sensors developed under the Resource Prospector mission will be used in partnership with commercial organizations, part of NASA's new strategy of contracting commercial lunar landers for future missions.

Robots have long played a key role in space exploration. NASA has been exploring the surface of Mars with robotic rovers since 1997. The space agency currently has several robots in development, including a self-unpacking, origami-inspired two-wheel rover named Puffer and a spelunking robot named BRUIE that grips the underside of ice sheets, such as the ones that cover the underground oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's satellites.

Perhaps NASA's most famous robot is R5 (AKA "Valkyrie"), a humanoid designed to work in environments built for humans, like shuttles and space stations.

Much of the confusion over the cancellation of Resource Prospector has come from the the fact that it seems to align so well with President Trump's ambitions to return humans to the moon.

The last humans touched down in 1972 as part of the Apollo 17 mission. Late last year, the president directed the agency to make another manned lunar mission a priority.

Resource Prospector's findings might have aided that effort.