Lunar Outpost on Why It's Sending a Swarm of Little Rovers to the Moon
"I’m very excited to put our product on the moon."
The Colorado-based startup Lunar Outpost wants to send a swarm of small, well-equipped rovers to survey the moon and this week debuted the four-wheeled vehicle ahead of its mission announcement next year.
The intention of these rovers isn’t exploration but economics: The prospect of lunar mining has received growing interest in recent years for the minerals that up there that might be useful down here. Studying what minerals may be in the moon has been the subject of academic research business inquiry. There could be rocket fuel in the moon, thinks the Japanese government. It could just be the platform for more business enterprise.
Lunar Outpost (not related to the NASA project of the same name) intends to test the lunar rover, or “prospector” as the company calls it, in the United States. With rich data from these Lunar Outpost Prospectors, of which there could be 20-25 at a time, missions geared toward extraterrestrial mining can make better decisions before launch. If all goes well on the moon, Lunar Outpost looks to send the swarms to other rocky destinations in the future.
AJ Gemer, Chief Technology Officer for Lunar Outpost, told Inverse about the challenges of developing moon mining technology over the phone this week. The company also announced this week that it will announced more information about its first mission in “mid-2019.”
What inspired Lunar Outpost to build the prospector?
This movement toward commercial space and public private partnership has been a topic of discussion for many years — how do people make money and businesses around space resources?
fWhat’s required now is ground-truthing of the [moon mapping] models. Going up close, confirming that the models are accurate, that the resources exist, what forms they’re in, what it takes to extract them. It’s something that can only be done from the surface.
How do you see the prospector fitting into international space community?
There are a number of agencies and countries interested in in-situ resource utilization, but those early missions will want to know what landing site is — very accurately — what’s available at that site, how to access it, so this data is valuable to more than the US.
What resources is the rover looking for?
We think that water will be low-hanging fruit. It can be electrolyzed into liquid hydrogen and oxygen and used for rocket fuel, but it’s also useful for life support, radiation shielding material, things like that. I do believe prospecting for water will be one of the most valuable activities, initially.
Any location in mind?
We’re keeping the details of our initial mission quiet, but speaking generally, there are craters near the poles of the moon that never see sunlight. They’re called permanently shadowed regions. It’s very cold in those craters, so water ice — maybe from comet impacts — can migrate, condense, collect, and never be evaporated by the heat of sunlight.
It’s an open question of how much and how deep it is, so it’s necessary for a robotic mission to confirm. Orbital missions find signatures of water ice, but it could be a few inches or several feet deep, and that makes a big difference.
Why send multiple small rovers over one large one?
It goes back to workforce multiplication. Past robotic missions have been one very high-value robot with a large skilled support staff making sure it’s safe, and that’s good for initial planetary exploration.
But for a commercial company who wants prospecting data, you need to cover more area than a single rover can cover, so as computer and autonomous algorithms have gotten better, it becomes possible to create rovers that work with each other. Our rover platform is orders of magnitude cheaper than any prior rover mission, since each individual robot is not as critical to the mission as past rover missions.
The rover is quite light, at 10 kilograms. What is the 5 kilogram payload space for?
Payload space is very valuable, so we did want to leave additional space in each of these rovers to take on other instruments. Might be from universities, other institutions, or from the NASA resource prospector mission that was now cancelled.
Our standard instrumentation package is strictly meant for prospecting, but [missions] could add mining or other instrumentation.
And what’s in that package?
We have scanning mass spectrometer, an onboard drill — it can drill down and examine what’s going on the surface, which is really one of the unique capabilities. We can see what’s going on below the surface, we have 360 degree LIDAR as well as 4k video, and all this very good data will be returned to Earth.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
There have been many, many challenges from technology, and of course funding challenges are always a challenge with startups, but we’re lucky to be located in really excellent area with Colorado School of Mines and the newly formed testbed at the Center for Space Resources. We really are in the right place at the right time.
Speaking of Colorado — how does the lunar testbed facility there differ from moon?
The lunar testbed is made to be as representative as possible in terms of chemical composition, the soil is called regolith simulant, has accurate chemical composition, grain size, distribution, but of course, there’s the issue of Earth gravity being six times greater than lunar gravity. Thermal conditions as well. A lunar day is approximately 13 Earth days, but once the sun sets on that particular day, it gets extremely cold, which is very hard for robots to deal with.
The best we have is a small testbed, in vacuum, with thermal conditions.
What are tests checking for, exactly?
Based on some of the areas of interest, we set out a set of requirements for what sort of inclines it had to be able to traverse, straight up and down or horizontally across, what kind of obstacles it would have to overcome, and how long it has to be able to drive for in harsh conditions.There are also conditions from launch, so quite the thought and design to be put through that.
What are you most excited about?
I’m very excited to put our product on the moon and continue to create future generations of them. I’m interested in the ability of not having to bring the payload, it requires a lot of fuel and imposes limitations on what you can bring, since that ability will give mankind many more capabilities.
What are some misconceptions people might have about lunar mining?
I would say there are questions around policy issues, related to extraterrestrial mining. The space treaties are quite complex. Generally speaking, it specifies that any use or profit gain from extraterrestrial resources must be distributed among mankind, which is functionally difficult to do.
Say we mine 1 teaspoon of water. How do you distribute that among mankind? But you can’t have a situation where a country plants their flag and, “Now we own the whole planet.” There’s an ongoing conversation around that to allow and encourage us to explore because that is universally good for everyone. We want to see as many people living and working on the moon as possible in our lifetimes.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity