President John F. Kennedy famously said that the United States chose goals like traveling to the moon “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But what’s the harm in making moon missions just a little bit easier with the help of some robot workers?
In early September, NASA further strengthened its relationship with the University of Arizona by awarding two engineering faculty with a $500,000 grant to develop space-mining technology in the form of autonomous robots.
Mining is a major element of Arizona’s history and culture, so it only fits that NASA would select UA researchers to advance their mining goals—even if those goals are off Earth. NASA announced an intention to return to the moon in 2024, and the space agency is testing out several new technologies that have been developed since humans last walked on the moon in 1972.
For a planned return to the moon, NASA has expressed interest in developing semi-permanent settlements. However, shipping the materials for these settlements from Earth would be extremely expensive. Some scientists argue that the answer to both mining and habitation on the moon may come in the form of autonomous “swarms” of robots.
“We’re building on the natural strengths of Arizona, which has historically been mining, with the emerging area of aerospace engineering,” said Jekan Thanga, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, and one of the grant recipients. “This also fits in with NASA prioritizing going back to the moon, setting up a base, and being able to live there for extended periods of time. To make this whole enterprise possible, you need to mine and live off the local resources. And that’s been an area we’ve thought about for a while, and are now doing fundamental research on… The cost of bringing something from Earth to the moon sort of becomes exponential with mass. We have to expend significant amounts of energy to leave Earth’s gravity well. So it makes a lot of sense to make use of in-situ resources on the moon or Mars.”
The grant is part of NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project. Thanga and interim head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering Moe Momayez will use the funding in UA’s ASTEROIDS Laboratory, where engineering, science and math students work to answer design problems in space technology. ASTEROIDS (Asteroid Science, Technology and Exploration Research Organized by Inclusive eDucation Systems) provides research opportunities for undergrads and mentoring opportunities for graduate students.
The current robot prototype Thanga and Momayez are working with is a 3D-printed rover that would be able to form sandbags out of lunar soil, make structures, push large objects via teamwork and mine for resources. Or as Thanga puts it, any of the tasks that are too “dirty, dangerous and boring” for humans.
“Doing these kinds of base construction and mining tasks couldn’t be done with a single robot, because of the intensity and number of things that can go wrong in this type of work,” Thanga said. “Up until now, most missions are very well crafted for a single robot, but there are trade-offs. You can’t do things that are high-risk or very dirty, but that becomes inevitable if you want to set up a base and go into mining. So we’re forced to confront these head-on.”
Critical problems the team is tackling include structure assembly, sandbagging, 3D printing—and most importantly, how to do it all without humans present. Thanks to 3D printing, the “swarm architecture” can be scaled up, depending on the needs of the mission.
“The redundancy of having multiple robots is very important,” Thanga said. “The remainder fills in if one breaks down, but even more interesting for us is that the team can cooperate. They can become more than the sum of their parts. Depending on the circumstances, if one robot breaks down, the others can pull it out of the way for repair. It’s all the tricks of cooperation and coordination that a human team could come up with, but we’re doing it with robotics.”
According to the Giant-impact Hypothesis, the Earth and moon came from the same original body and separated some five billion years ago. Because of this, scientists believe there are similar important metals on the Earth and moon, including titanium, gold and platinum. This may mean the mined lunar resources can be used either in-place or back on Earth.
With the funding, Momayez and Thanga plan to add a special space mining program to the ASTEROIDS Lab, serving students from both the Colleges of Engineering and School of Mining.
“They can test their robots at the mine, they can excavate, they can drill, they can blast,” Momayez said in a UA release. “And with the establishment of the new School of Mining and Mineral Resources, we hope to get more students from all over the world involved in mining.”
Thanga credits UA’s success with NASA missions as a combination of “timing, talent, luck and a mentality of exploration for the university and the state.”
“The University of Arizona is known colloquially as one of the space universities, and for that we’ve been given some great responsibilities,” Thanga said.