UK robots reach for the moon and Mars
Space may be big but most technologies for exploring it are small, robotic, and packed with sensors, says Chris Middleton.
The world’s smallest lunar rover will blast off in 2021 and is the brainchild of a British startup, SpaceBit.
The 1.5kg rover, which is small enough to be held in the hand, is a mobile sensor platform mounted on four legs. SpaceBit claims this will allow it to explore parts of the moon’s surface, such as steep, rock-strewn terrain, that larger wheeled vehicles are unable to reach.
The camera- and sensor-packed rover will roam across the surface, taking readings from the soil for nearly two weeks – one lunar day. Although the device can withstand temperatures from -130C to 130C, it will be left to freeze in the cryogenic lunar night after completing its mission.
The project sees Britain become only the fourth country to put a robot on the moon, after the US, Russia, and China.
In March 2019, the US government set NASA the strategic objective of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. The following month, China announced plans to establish a base at the lunar south pole within a decade, revealing that a new Space Race is on between East and West.
NASA said that the short timescale of the challenge opened up partnership opportunities with the private sector, including startups.
Accordingly, SpaceBit will be taken to the moon by an autonomous Astrobotic lander, in advance of the human missions. In May 2019, Astrobotic joined fellow US startups Orbit Beyond and Intuitive Machines in being awarded funding to build robots for the missions.
Autonomous systems will be critical to all future lunar and Mars expeditions; equipment will be pre-deployed and left unattended for long periods between human visits, so will need to continue functioning independently, maintaining human habitats.
SpaceBit is not the only British project to reach for the stars. The Rosalind Franklin rover will be launched in August 2020 as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Mission, and is due to land on the red planet in March 2021. With £250 million invested in that programme, the UK is the second biggest contributor after Italy.
In June, the UK government signalled its commitment to the burgeoning space market with the launch of two new programmes: a National Space Council and National Space Framework. The aim is to both provide strategic leadership across government and coordinate UK strategy and investment in this field.
Also in June, the government announced £20 million in funding for Spaceport Cornwall and for US operator Virgin Orbit to launch small satellites from the facility in the early 2020s.
The global market for small satellite launches could be worth ￡3.9 billion by 2030, according to government figures. Robots are critical to maintaining satellite constellations.
Meanwhile, the UK Space Agency and ESA are collaborating with NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on launching two sensor-packed space weather-monitoring spacecraft over the next five years. The craft will monitor the heliosphere from two different points in space, known as Lagrange Points 1 and 5 (L1 and L5), to create a 3D view.
Severe space weather, such as solar flares and magnetic storms, can be hazardous to life and communications infrastructures on Earth.
For the mission to Lagrange Point 5, Airbus Defence and Space Ltd lead on developing overall mission objectives, STFC RAL Space on optical instruments to observe the sun and inner heliosphere, and UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory on instruments to measure the solar wind.
According to ONS figures, UK space exports are set to grow to £25 billion by the end of the next decade. In 2016-17, the UK space industry supported nearly 42,000 jobs, many of them in Scotland.