50 Years After Moon Landing, Robots Continue to Explore the Cosmos

Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon in 1969. Robots helped 50 years ago, and they continue to help explore space. Image: NASA

July 15, 2019      

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. Some 6 ½ hours later, Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. But robots also had a major role.

Before Apollo 11 became the first manned aircraft to make a moon landing, NASA had sent several robotic spacecraft equipped with scientific instrumentation to study the Moon.

Between 1962 and 1968, Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter provided information that gave engineers and scientists a better understanding of interplanetary space and lunar geography that helped them prepare for the historic manned landing.

In the years since, robots have been deployed to explore the moon, Mars, and the vastness of outer space – environments too hostile for humans.

Next steps for robots

Now 50 years after the historic Apollo 11 mission, NASA has awarded space robotics company Astrobotic Technology Inc. a $5.6 million contract to develop an autonomous lunar rover with its partner, Carnegie Mellon University. Dubbed MoonRanger, the rover will provide high-fidelity 3D maps of the moon’s polar regions and lunar pits. MoonRanger could be ready to make its journey as early as 2021 or 2022.

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John Thornton, Astrobotic

“We are building a delivery service to go to the moon to make the moon accessible to the world,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic. “It’s a robotic delivery service – it’s a robotic lander. And we bring robotic things to the surface, and that opens up a whole array of new applications and things to do on the surface.”

The first of those robotic applications is science and exploration, and the second is infrastructure development on the surface of the moon, he said.

“For example, one of our first payloads is a group that wants to set up a laser communication system from the surface of the moon,” Thornton said. “I think we’re going to need robots to set that kind of thing up and to maintain it once it gets to full scale. But the first mission is going to be small scale – just a proof of concept.”

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The Astrobotic Peregrine lander will be used to deliver payloads to the Moon in July 2021. Image: Astrobotic

Robots will also play a big role in the future of the Moon in terms of its resources, he said.

There are vast quantities of water at the poles of the moon that can be turned into rocket fuel by splitting the water into oxygen and hydrogen and condensing it, according to Thornton.

“That’s the same fuel that the shuttle used,” he said. “So the Moon could become a gas station. But a huge robotic application will be needed to get to the fuel and to process the fuel and everything else around it. That mission will fly in June and July of 2021 – June for launch and July for landing. And then from there we’re going to have subsequent missions probably on an annual basis.”

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William “Red” Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University. Image courtesy of CMU.

The great promise of the Moon are those resources at the poles, according to William “Red” Whittaker, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, who is working on MoonRanger with Astrobotic.

“And those are volatiles, I guess [people] would call them ice. Robots will be the first to the poles, the first to drill, characterize, and process the volatiles,” Whittaker said. “And the value is that you can then liquefy that into water and drink it. You can split it into oxygen and breathe it, you can combine it with its hydrogen and burn it. And it is a prospect for infrastructure on the Moon, and also to supply missions going further into space.”

Lunar sinkholes

Robots will also be used to explore vertical-walled lunar pits, the equivalents of sinkholes, which could offer access to resources and shelter that could sustain the lunar missions of the future.

There are hundreds of these pits on the Moon as well as on Mars. And robots could determine exactly what these pits are, if there are any fissures, caverns, cave openings or even overhangs that could be used to protect humans from such dangers as radiation, lunar dust, and the Moon’s massive day-night temperature fluctuations, according to Whittaker.

“Those are the questions that will be answered by robots,” he said. “It’s certain that astronauts are not going to be the first things committed into the complete unknowns of those settings. I don’t know that you can imagine the dangers that would be involved with repelling a vertical wall of loose planetary material the first time. It’s got to be robotic.”

Another space race?

As the “second space race” continues to ramp up, there will be more competition between the U.S., China, Russia and the European Space Agency. There will also be reassessment and reinvigorated determination to put robotic missions on the Moon and Mars in the next 10 or 20 years, said Rian Whitton, senior analyst, ABI Research.

Future Moon and space missions will undoubtedly include humans and robots working together.

“They will either be wheeled or tracked mobile robots that will be deployed with a range of scientific instruments to collect experimental data on atmospherics and different types of minerals,” he said.

The general assessment is that there are commercial opportunities associated with robots and the Moon, such as deep space mining or just surveying resources, for example, Whitton said. But these are very speculative and long-term at the moment.

Given the price that it costs to develop these systems, it can be very hard to imagine anything particularly revolutionary happening within the next two to five years, at least from the perspective of ABI Research, he said.

“You’re also seeing some development of proof of concepts where the robot would have an articulated arm that would have an additive manufacturing kind of device, like a 3D printer,” he said. “The robot would essentially be deployed to do some basic construction work on certain parts of the Moon – that’s another use case where they’re being considered.”

However, the big challenge for this is the latency associated with the communications and tele-operation, Whitton added.

“Having any kind of additive manufacturing capability requires lower latency and essentially effective mobile manipulation capability,” he said. “This isn’t really something that has necessarily been tested out or is foolproof yet, but that is something that could happen.”

Siri in space?

Michael Mansouri, co-founder of Radiant Images, an optical imaging technology company, and senior technology advisor of Hawkeye Systems, which is in the process of acquiring Radiant, said his company is trying to solve the issue of communication.

Radiant worked on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to capture high-quality images never before seen in space – which led to NASA’s first Emmy win in 2018.

“One of the biggest challenges is that once space travel goes beyond the Moon and further planets, communication is going to be a major obstacle, and the delay and frequency of getting information back and forth,” he said.

Radiant is looking at how artificial intelligence can bridge that gap and have the information to create the interactivity that astronauts need. Instead of looking something up in a manual, the astronauts can ask a question similar to how individuals conduct conversations with Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

The technology that Radiant is working with is a holographic rendering of things that the astronauts could interact with, which is supported through AI.