With the launch of lunar orbital stations and the first Moon landing in years expected to take place this decade, scientists are increasingly setting their sights on technology that would allow future missions to mine the Moon for resources.
A team of researchers from the University of Arizona recently received a $500,000 grant from NASA to develop space-mining methods. The result is the development of a swarm of autonomous robots that could search and mine for rare earth metals on the Moon, a press release explains.
Lunar robot swarm will work as a team and improve over time
The team behind the robots developed an electrochemical process that drills through rock five times faster than any other method. This is combined with a neuromorphic learning architecture technique called the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System (HEART) that trains robots to work together and improve their collaboration skills over time via machine learning. The team will build and train the robots on Earth so they can hone their teamwork skills in a safer environment before going to space. Ultimately, the team aims to deploy the swarm of robots on the Moon, where they will be able to build basic structures and mine for resources without instruction from Earth.
Mining under the Moon's surface could greatly reduce the reliance on transporting materials from Earth for future lunar stations. Materials that could be mined on the Moon include rare earth metals, titanium, gold and platinum, and helium-3. Rare earth metals could help to build medical equipment and smartphones, while helium-3 could fuel nuclear power plants in the distant future.
Sending "artificial creatures" to the Moon
Jekan Thanga, who developed the HEART learning architecture, likens the swarm of robots to a herd of animals or workers on a farm. "In a sense, we're like farmers. We're breeding talent out of these creatures, or a whole family of creatures, to do certain tasks," he said. "By going through this process, we help perfect these artificial creatures whose job it is to do the mining tasks." The team believes that the swarm of robots could free up astronauts to spend more time on critical mission operations, at the same time as performing dangerous construction tasks. "The idea is to have the robots build, set things up and do all the dirty, boring, dangerous stuff, so the astronauts can do the more interesting stuff," Thanga said.
The University of Arizona team isn't the only one aiming to send mining robots to the Moon. In June, California-based Masten Systems announced it was developing a lunar rover that could blast through Moon rock to reach ice, providing vital water resources to future lunar stations. Space mining is also set to go beyond our celestial neighbor, as asteroids in our solar system, such as 16 Psyche contain abundant materials — its net worth is estimated to be $700 quintillion — that could be transported back to Earth. Sourcing materials off-world could shape the economy of the future, with resources mined autonomously with little human intervention.