UNAM to send 9 microrobots to the moon in 2021

The robots will navigate the lunar surface and form a solar panel

UNAM to send 9 microrobots to the moon in 2021
The mission is scheduled for July 2021 – Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 28/08/2019 17:06 EFE Mexico City Actualizada 14:38
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On Monday, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the highest house of studies in the country, informed that by mid-2021, it will set nine microrobots in the moon’s surface as part of the COLMENA mission, developed by the Nuclear Sciences Institute (ICN).

The launch, which is expected to be scheduled for July 2021, will be in charge of the private American company Astrobotic, which will also take to the moon experiments of the NASA and other countries.

It is intended that the robots, of 8 centimeters in diameter and 4 centimeters tall, browse randomly and independently in the natural satellite until finding each other in a swarm that will be connected electrically and will form a solar panel.

The load of COLMENA will have a module of telecommunications, telemetry, and launching, made in the Space Instrumentation Laboratory (LINX) of the ICN, with support from the Mexican Space Agency (AEM), the Science and Technology National Council (Conacyt), and some tech companies.

The researcher of the ICN, Gustavo Medina Tanco, said that the teams will take measurements of regolith dust, a very fine radioactive cloud charged electrically that damages technology since, by not having atmospheres or their own magnetic fields, asteroids and moons are full of it.

Medina explained that the objective of survival of the robots is a feat because group tasks will have to face “meteorite bombing and of high energy particles of solar wind.”

“This mission is also an opportunity to create human resources in the space sector,” said the academic.

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UNAM was proud that high school to Ph.D. students from this institution have participated in the design, building, and validation of COLMENA.

Astrobotic Technology is a private company that is developing space robotics technology for lunar and planetary missions. It was founded in 2008 by Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon and his associates, with the objective of winning the Google Lunar X Award.

With the lunar vehicle “Peregrine,” it intends to deliver useful loads for companies, governments, NGOs, and universities while developing navigation technology related to land, mobile robotics for operations in the lunar surface, and reliable computer systems for mission-critical applications.

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Moondust is not seen as an obstacle but rather as one of the challenges the mission will have to overcome. Colmena wants to develop a technological niche that, in the next decades, works for Mexico as currency to participate in the new era of interplanetary exploration and exploitation, especially for mining in moons and asteroid, as explained by Doctor Gustavo Medina Tanco.

This new technological niche consists of developing micro-robotics for space applications. “It’s borderline knowledge; it’s something that has never been done before and the idea is for Mexico to be the first to do so and develop it until the last consequences,” mentions Medina. The objective is to show that really small robots can navigate in the Moon and perform different tasks by cooperating with each other.

The nine microrobots will have the code to interact with each other and to perform the assigned tasks so that they can navigate in this complex space body and build a solar panel. Solving a task of this sort would be the first phase of a project made up by other two missions that could become the base to develop increasingly complex tasks until being able to travel to an asteroid to look for minerals, like platinum or rare earth minerals (the so-called REMs are very useful to produce new technologies), that will probably become scarce in the earth’s crust in the next decades.

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“Mexico would already have the technology developed for this search. It would be a way for our country to be an actor inside these processes and not only a faraway spectator,” he says.

Space mining is one of the big bets of the new space era. Based on the known terrestrial reserves and the increasing use of these materials, it is calculated that essential elements for modern industry, like platinum, zinc, tin, silver, lead, indium, gold, and copper, could run out in less than 50 years, but new reserves could be extracted, mainly, from some asteroids near Earth.

In LINX, basic science is used to develop cutting-edge space technology, as shown recently in its participation in the development of the instrument Mini-EUSO launched a couple of months ago to the International Space Station. This project, in which countries like Russia and Italy also collaborated, is used to carry out particle physics research and to observe, in a pioneering way, the night side in Earth’s ultraviolet, like bioluminescence produced by plankton in the ocean, which is of great use to analyze the impact of climate change.

In this 10-years-old laboratory, scientists are also getting ready to launch a satellite and are looking to develop sub-orbital flights.

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New National Laboratory
All these projects extrapolate from UNAM to a new and most ambitious scientific epicenter: the National Space Access Laboratory planned in Hidalgo and whose construction would be completed in the next 18 to 24 months. According to Medina, the idea is to share the experience gained in international circuits to produce technology under the “Made in Mexico” seal that could be exported to other places.

In addition to interplanetary micro-robotics, other areas of interest are low-cost nanosatellite constellations with practical applications on Earth. “Now, we can follow truck fleets and ship containers, control the traffic for citiy vehicles, watch crops in a field to know if they have the necessary humidity and nutrients or if there are plagues,” he mentions.

All these possibilities also open a market for applications that use a great volume of information. “Artificial intelligence and data mining are examples of technologies that can lead you to exponential growths and this completely changes the market.” The idea of the national laboratory in Hidalgo is to develop a whole system that also provides a space for the incubation of small companies in projects with social and economic impact.

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Medina points out that one of the problems in the country is that there are no financing mechanisms for this kind of space project. “Conacyt is prepared neither in resources nor in regulations and administration to participate in this kind of matters; something more is needed and experience tells us that we don’t need for the government to provide the money but to look for sponsors and follow objectives so as not to depend of current financing mechanisms because if we do so, we would be eternally complaining,” he asserts. He adds that we are in a scientific financing crisis in al levels and in all areas, not only in projects related to space, but better mechanisms would be expected for basic science because they are farther from a direct commercial application, as well as for institutions that seem to be drowning without resources nowadays, like the Mexican Space Agency.

The researcher mentions that a great transformation is taking place in space exploration, a breaking of paradigms of what used to mean to travel to space, for in the past it was a possibility only for the great powers with powerful space agencies, like the U.S. and Russia.

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One of the pieces that changed the game was the entrance of private companies to the launching market because, in this way, actors that could not have access to space can now do so with a small investment. “And we’re not only talking about developing economies with space agencies but of small entrepreneurs and companies. A new and different financing market is opening to achieve many new things.”

In this sense, India appears on the map to exemplify how they have been able to develop in the 21st century with technology. “It is a good example: it has almost 10 times more population than Mexico, but economically and with its profile of wealth distribution it can be equiparable. We better learn fast because although a developing country will always have social problems to address, they cannot be the focus of a 100% of the efforts and resources because if the future is not built, we will be condemned to always live with the same social problems.”

For Medina, the way to build the future is through science and technology because we are in a world evolving exponentially and as developing countries, we cannot afford to get off this train in history to solve today’s problems without other expectations. “Today, we are in front of a fast traveling train and if you get off, you won’t ever be able to climb again.”

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