ISM Students Programme Rovers to Find Water Ice on the Moon
12 August 2021
On Wednesday 30 June, first-year Interdisciplinary Space Master (ISM) students took to SnT’s LunaLab, an environment that simulates the Moon’s surface, to test their rovers in finding resources. In a semester that has shown them what the space industry of tomorrow has in its sights, their focus has been on building and effectively programming a ‘LeoRover’, one that is widely available, to find resources.
The LunaLab is one of the few labs in the world that can simulate lunar visual conditions, and is the base for testing robots within both the ISM and companies participating in our Partnership Programme. Measuring 80m2, the lab contains 20,000 kilograms of basalt gravel, that effectively simulates the surface of the moon. This allows both students and companies in the space industry to test their vehicles in conditions that faithfully replicate that which is found nearly 400,000 kilometres away on the Moon. The lab is also equipped with state-of-the-art sensor systems, that can monitor the success of the programming, and measure the robot’s movement down to the millimetre.
Speaking about the test, Prof. Miguel Olivares-Mendez, head of the Space Robotics research group and lecturer in the ISM said, “This is a simulation of a realistic mission that NASA will run in the coming years – the VIPER.” In 2023, VIPER will be the very first mission with the aim of ‘resource mapping’ – to evaluate the concentration of water ice on the Moon’s south pole and mark its location. This is a vital next stage in our exploration of the solar system, as astronauts of the future who wish to explore beyond the Moon will need to be able to survive from extracted resources in their environment. “Simply put, if we want to become a multi-planetary species and explore the solar system, then we’ll need to learn to live off the land, just like our ancestor explorers did on the Earth,” said Elliott Wobler, a first-year student of the ISM.
At the beginning of the semester in February 2021, the students were tasked with assembling and setting up their rovers from scratch. This involved everything from putting the parts together, to installing the software, cameras and developing algorithms that would enable the rover to move autonomously. “In the building process, we implemented simulations that would enable the rover to move – but this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It involves a debugging process as initial simulations don’t always transfer well to reality,” said fellow ISM student Balazs Farkas. But the aim of the mission wasn’t just to find resources, it was also for the rover to map the resource and store the data for the future. “Once the students had programmed the rover to move, it needed to be able to understand the images it could capture through its camera. Blocks were placed around the LunaLab of varying colours, so that the students could program the rover with image processing algorithms to detect the resource. The rover then takes note of the location using a motion-capture localisation system, and continues with its exploration,” said Prof. Olivares-Mendez. Their aim was to locate and save the location of four resources.
The movement toward using robots to search for resources is absolutely necessary, and has actually allowed more start-ups to come to the market, since the technology needed to build these robots is quite accessible. “Robots will help us to advance our knowledge of space because you can’t send an astronaut to look for resources – the cost would be extraordinary,” he continued. “They need to move autonomously because there are situations where you don’t have a direct line of contact,” shared Wobler.
It’s these innovations that have paved the way for a far more accessible, commercial use of space. The ISM was developed in partnership with the Luxembourg Space Agency and is characterised by a project-based learning approach, with strong ties to national stakeholders. With training on space systems engineering, space informatics, entrepreneurship and business management, they garner knowledge and skills that will prepare them well for Luxembourg’s growing space industry. In fact, the study programme was reviewed by CEOs within the industry, with the agreement that this training would allow them to thrive in many different positions. “We are touching on some very advanced technologies – the state-of-the-art, in fact. So being able to understand and develop capabilities in using the technology will ensure that, for the next 10-15 years, our knowledge will be relevant,” said Farkas.