A new deep space race of sorts is heating up as nations set their sights on the moon, Mars, and beyond.
Two rovers are scheduled to land on the Martian surface in the months ahead: NASA’s Perseverance is scheduled to touch down in February and will be joined by the Tianwen 1 mission’s rover later this year.
Following up on the Chang’e 5 probe’s recent successful lunar retrieval mission, the UK plans to deploy a robotic spider-like rover on the moon in 2021. NASA’s Artemis program aims to place a woman and a man on the moon by 2024 and will launch the Intuitive Machines 1 (IM-1) mission in October in preparation for future manned lunar exploration efforts.
In an ever-expanding universe, the distance separating Earth and our celestial neighbors seems less formidable than it has in the past for spacefaring nations.
“Space in a way is shrinking because the access is more readily available. It may make sense for a lot of different nations to start proving their technologies out, and the moon is there to do that,” said Tom McCarthy, VP of business development at Motiv Space Systems.
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Motiv has created numerous technologies to assist with robotic space missions including a robotic arm, cameras, a torque sensor, and other instruments on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. The company is also working on other orbit-based projects such as OSAM-2, which will use a Motiv xLink Robotic Arm to construct a 3D-printed solar array in orbit “sometime around 2023.”
Needless to say, space is a rather inhospitable place beyond the comparatively cozy confines of our planet. Whether it’s low-Earth orbit, the moon, or the Martian surface, these environments present no shortage of challenges to consider when designing resilient robotic systems let alone supporting delicate human life. This includes little to no atmospheric protection from cosmic radiation, extreme temperature fluctuations, and global Martian dust storms to name a few.
Highlighting some of these engineering difficulties, McCarthy discussed the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm (COLDArm) program in development with Motiv’s partner JPL. As part of this effort, they are attempting to establish a manipulator system capable of operating in an environment between minus 180 degrees C and approximately about 80 degrees C, he explained.
“That’s a huge dynamic range for an electromechanical system,” McCarthy said.
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Historically, operations have used heat sources and “special accommodations” to support these systems, he said, but the team is fostering a different approach when it comes to creating these robust systems.
“We are trying to develop a philosophy of attacking the environment as it’s given to us and making the systems and technologies robust to those environments. We think in the long run, if we can design for that complete environment, then that expands the tool set for the mission architects,” McCarthy said
During the design and development phase, it’s possible to “go clean sheet,” as he put it, but each project design doesn’t necessitate reinventing the rover wheel, so to speak. McCarthy said that the team’s engineering experience allows them to build upon past engineering challenges.
“Along those journeys, each individual has learned something, has gleaned something, has witnessed something, has developed a technique or a test for something. The combination of those things help define or invent new processes and new techniques,” he said.
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While teams are able to simulate a specific space environment in the lab here on Earth, it’s important to note that these simulations are based on estimates and limited knowledge. Myriad unknown-unknowns can create curious anomalies as missions unfold.
In the past, NASA craft have encountered unexpected conditions once the bots arrive at their destinations. For example, during the Curiosity mission, the team actually miscalculated the Martian gravity, according to a NASA engineer we interviewed.
These bots on the ground provide teams with detailed analysis of on-site conditions; a critical step toward establishing potentially long-term human settlements.
“We have pretty good models and we understand the environment, but there’s nothing like being able to have systems as precursors to really monitor and quantify environments,” McCarthy said.
As missions dive deeper into space, communication delays between craft and mission control add another layer of complexity to the equation. Due to these delays and other concerns, McCarthy said that adding a layer of autonomy to robotic exploration craft is almost a must at this point. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other models could be used to bolster autonomy and address operational anomalies, McCarthy added.
“With an AI, or autonomous system, something that can monitor its health in real time, maybe you can help prevent some of those fatigue cases or make sure that everything is constantly running nominally,” McCarthy said.
The lunar and Martian surfaces are set to be brimming with exploratory bots in the months and years ahead. These lessons learned could prove to be invaluable towards future exploration efforts and potentially becoming a multi-planetary species.
“[The moon] is a great testbed to develop your infrastructure and your knowledge, especially if you have the vision to grow your space capabilities,” McCarthy said.