Mining the moon is tricker that you might expect, because you have to find a way to power rovers in a crater eight miles deep and stretching across the distance from New York to Dallas. Adrian Stoica, an engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a concept for transforming robotic mirrors to provide solar power to make the mining possible.

Polar craters on the moon could be teeming with ice that humans could convert into cheap fuel to power and propel future spacecraft bound for Mars, but getting at it is difficult, because the giant craters don’t get much sunlight.

In a presentation at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium in Raleigh on Tuesday, Stoica said his TransFormers concept “would provide continuous illumination into permanently shaded craters in the lunar south pole, to warm up and power the robots that are in there … to produce the fuel to that will make the journeys to Mars affordable.”

This TransFormers would work as sketched out here, lighting the exploratory robots in the crater below them.
This TransFormers would work as sketched out here, lighting the exploratory robots in the crater below them.

The robots would unfold like origami, opening fans of reflective material that would illuminate the crater, changing shape to constantly light the mining and research robots as they traveled. Thanks to the illumination and climate control, the mining rovers can carry less fuel and won’t require extreme engineering to survive the climate on the lunar south pole.

Without something like the TransFormers, it’s going to be very difficult to get robots into lunar craters to extract ice – at least inexpensively. So although they’re still in the concept stages, it’s a good bet that something like these rotating light fans will be key to actually cracking open the moon.

Photos via Adrian Stoica, NASA JPL, Getty Images / Bill Ingalls/NASA