NASA has funded eight unusual projects that promise to unlock the secrets – and the potential – of the Moon, earmarking $1 million for long shot ideas that could have a big payoff. The grants will go to concepts as weird and wonderful as a probe catapult, a system to remotely power things via lasers, and a robotic dog.
It’s part of NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge and the Space Grant project, which tasked universities in the US with figuring out ways to tap one of the Moon’s most valuable – and currently unused – resources. The permanently shadowed areas of Earth’s satellite are in fact out planet’s closest extraterrestrial water source.
Actually turning that water source into something we could use, however, is going to take research and exploration. While NASA is looking at a sizable budget for Artemis, its project to return human astronauts to the Moon and then go further afield, to Mars, it’s looking to other possibilities for new lunar tech. “The selected teams will develop ways to collect data in and around permanently shadowed regions, generate wireless power for future infrastructure, enable autonomous mobility even in the most extreme environments, and more,” the space agency says.
Robots to go exploring
Some of the projects focus on how to get investigative drones or sensors to different parts of the Moon’s surface. Arizona State University (Tempe), for example, was granted $84,333 for its work on a spring catapult that could fling ball-shaped probes from a lunar lander. Those probes could beam back data for several hours, it’s suggested, allowing for new areas of potential to be quickly surveyed.
Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire) also wants to probe new places on the Moon, though using small, lightweight robots. The $83,000 grant will cover the development of four-wheeled scouts that can either work independently or join together into tram-like systems that share power and can better travel over soft terrain. They’ll also be able to move instrumentation around the lunar surface.
Northeaster University (Boston) has a similar modular idea; its $90,889 grant will go on developing a two-part system, a support module dubbed DOGHOUSE that acts as a portable home base – for recharging and communication relaying – for a legged robot known as SCOUT.
The idea of a robot survey is shared by Michigan Technological University (Houghton). It’s been awarded $161,074 to develop a small rover that can lay down a lightweight superconducting cable, spooled out from a Moon lander. That then distributes power and communications to other robots operating in shadowed areas, where solar power isn’t available.
Communications and surveying
Other grants will go on projects looking at how to better communicate on the Moon’s surface. A $163,900 grant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge) will go on a deployable tower, rising approximately 100 feet from a lunar lander. That could then be used as a communication relay, as well as a position from which to take higher-resolution photos from overhead.
Pennsylvania State University (State College) also wants to do prospecting work. It has been granted $145,953 for an instrument that uses a laser to map concentrated resources, such as water ice.
Wireless power distribution
One of the most significant challenges lunar exploration faces is doing without the traditional solar power that would normally be used to keep batteries and systems charged up. Two of the grants are going on projects that would use high-power lasers to distribute power between areas.
Colorado School of Mines in Golden with the University of Arizona in Tucson, for instance, was awarded a $114,000 grant for a wireless energy system, using lasers that could transmit power to small, stationary receivers. Those receivers could even be as small as 2-inch cubes, with an outer shell of solar panels.
University of Virginia (Charlottesville), meanwhile, also wants to use lasers for power. Its $123,596 grant will go on a high-power laser which would be mounted on a lander and located at the rim of a crater. That would be used to power a rover in the crater, which would be operating in darkness for extended periods.
Quite literally moon-shot ideas
Not all of these projects are necessarily going to make the grade, and be suitable for actual deployment on the Moon. Still, the stakes – and expectations – are high nonetheless. Over the next ten months, each of the eight teams will be working on their technologies, to demonstrate to NASA whether they’re likely to be ready for a potential lunar mission that could take place as soon as 2023. That review will take place in November 2020.