Challenges are one way to encourage innovation. They’ve been leveraged by numerous space and non-space research organizations in the last decade, with varying degrees of success. The European Space Agency (ESA) is now getting in on the action, with a challenge to prospect the moon for vital resources that will make a sustainable presence there possible. Recently thirteen teams from all over the continent (and Canada) competed in a gloomy hall in the Erasmus Innovation Centre in the Netherlands.
The results of this first phase of the challenge are expected by the end of the month, with five winners taking home €75K each for this first phase of the challenge. Their mission was to search through a simulated lunar polar environment with low light and challenging terrain and gather as much information as possible about the resources that could potentially be exploited in that environment.
Much of that information would be collected as spectroscopic or visual analysis. Teams utilized different sensing and locomotion technologies, including wheeled rovers, legged walkers, and even flying drones (which would probably prove impractical in the moon’s thin atmosphere).
The environment they traversed was built to represent a lunar pole that had a mock crater in it. A lack of extreme temperature cycles makes lunar poles, especially the craters, exciting places for a permanent human presence. But the low light levels can make it difficult to see what resources might be available in them.
Hence the challenge – a dimly lit space where teams were required to analyze as much as possible in the 2.5 hours they were given to explore the area. First, they had to navigate a “traversal zone” to get to the site where resources might be found. After that point, anything goes, with the prize going to the team that can collect the most correct information.
ESA expects results to be forthcoming by the end of the month, with five teams receiving a cash reward and an invite to the second phase of the program planned for September of this year. The ultimate goal would be to use the technology to support a mission later in the decade as part of a crewed mission to the moon. There’s still a long way to get there, but developing the technologies requested by this challenge is a clear step on that path, no matter how badly lit it might be.
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A wheeled rover searches the dimly lit competition space for resources.
Credit – ESA / M. Sabbatini