Asteroid Day LIVE 2021: Q&A with Miguel Olivares Mendez
28 June 2021
Prof. Miguel Olivares-Mendez heads the SpaceR Research Group, the LunaLab, and the Zero-Gravity Lab at the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT). His research into autonomous robotics includes aerial, planetary, and orbital robotics for autonomous navigation, as well as supporting technologies such as machine learning and situational awareness. On 30 June, his team is releasing a special video tour of the LunaLab facility for Asteroid Day. We spoke to him about Asteroid Day, his research, and the future of robots in space.
Tell us about asteroid day. What is it?
Asteroid Day is a yearly global event that is held on 30 June, the anniversary of the 1908 Siberian Tunguska asteroid event. The Tunguska event was a massive explosion that flattened over 2000 square kilometers of Siberian forest. The asteroid that caused it was, we suspect, pretty small on a cosmic scale — and it didn’t even hit the Earth! It burnt up while it was still five to ten kilometres off the ground — but it released enough energy to flatten an estimated 80 million trees. Had the explosion happened over an inhabited area, it could have easily destroyed an entire metropolitan region. So Asteroid Day was founded in 2014 by a number of very prominent astrophysicists, including Stephen Hawking and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. They and the other co-founders and co-signers of the Asteroid Day declaration believed that the world needed to become more aware of the threat that asteroids pose to us. Asteroid Day helps to raise that awareness and it includes everything from special talks and broadcasts to local events.
How is your research group getting involved this year?
Our research group was invited to give a tour of our LunaLab facility as part of the media features produced for Asteroid Day. Our lunar robotics work could help with the creation of a permanent base on the moon — the next big step forward for asteroid research and exploration — by identifying the water-ice and minerals that we will need to build structures, sustain life, and manufacture rocket fuel locally at the new moon base. The lunar base will serve as a much better launching point for future missions, as well as a new base for asteroid monitoring and observation. Once the base has been built, our work developing algorithms for lunar robots will go on to support further research and exploration of asteroids.
Tell us more about the connection between your autonomous robots and asteroids. Why are robots so important for research into asteroids?
Robotics is a disruptive technology that is making a lot more possible in space. Going forward, space exploration will involve some people, but it will likely involve a whole lot more robots. We won’t see sprawling space civilisations growing out of space exploitation, like the ones you see in popular science fiction like The Expanse or Star Trek. At least, we won’t see that any time soon. What we will see, however, are massive networks of smart robots and sophisticated communications systems. This is partly because keeping people alive and employed in space is expensive — it costs about 8000 USD per hour to employ a person in space. Robots and their development are also expensive, but they’re still much more affordable than astronauts. We can rely on robots to get work done without using up the limited resources we have available to us in an environment like the moon, and we can also take advantage of advancements in technologies like artificial intelligence to make robots smart enough to interpret and respond to these environments. This means that we can send robots into places where we have limited information or poor access and expect them to perform their missions reasonably well with minimal investment and no risk to human life. With robots, we’ll be able to accomplish a lot more with a lot less — and we’ll be able to go to places that are completely inaccessible for people.
Asteroids are among the least accessible bodies in our solar system, but they are also rich in resources that we will need in order to build more space projects. Ultimately, we’ll have to rely on robots — especially autonomous robots — to reach them and extract those resources. In the future, whether we want to be diverting asteroids from a collision path with Earth or mining asteroids for minerals, we will depend on small autonomous or semi-autonomous robots to get close to the asteroid and be not just our eyes and ears, but actually our hands and boots on the ground so to speak. Robots, and especially autonomous robots, are going to become our interface with the cosmos. So my team is working on making sure that our robots are smart enough to live up to the task.
What’s next for you and your team?
Working with autonomous robots in space, there’s a lot of excitement and energy to get things working and implemented very quickly. Unlike on Earth, there are no regulations in space to worry about in orbit. Our hands are free to try whatever solution is most efficient. On top of that, whereas on Earth the adoption of autonomous robots has been slow, because they are often more expensive than old-fashioned manual labor, in space, the adoption of autonomous robots is accelerating because even very expensive robots are still less expensive than astronauts. So everyone who is interested in conducting business in space, from the European Space Agency to private companies, is looking to bring the most cutting-edge solutions to their tools and they are willing to invest and explore and experiment in ways that Earth-bound projects are not. So, there is always a lot going on. This summer, I’ll be participating in the Frontier Development Lab (FDL), which is an artificial intelligence research accelerator sponsored by SETI and NASA. Together with my Ph.D. student, Jose Ignacio Delgado-Centeno, I’ll be conducting an intensive research sprint to upscale images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). With better image resolution, we’ll effectively be giving every robot on the Moon accurate maps, which will make it easier for them to traverse on the surface of the Moon and reach the South Pole (which we are especially interested in). With better maps, we hope companies and space agencies can plan future missions to find the water-ice and other resources that we need to advance our plans for space resource development. It is a good example of how we can make robots smarter in order to achieve more in space. Once our sprint is done, NASA can take our algorithms and apply them within the Artemis program. If they work well, they’ll be adopted. After that, we will continue our research on that topic to provide our algorithms not only to NASA but also to the Luxembourg Space Agency, ESA or any interested space agency or lunar robotics company.