It’s Time to Study Lunar Lava Tubes. Here’s a Mission That Could Help

Spectacular high Sun view of the Mare Tranquillitatis pit crater revealing boulders on an otherwise smooth floor. The 100 meter pit may provide access to a lunar lava tube. Image Credit: By NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University -, Public Domain,

The Moon is practically begging to be explored, and the momentum to do so is building. The Artemis Program’s effort to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo missions captures a lot of attention. But there are other efforts underway.

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An Astronaut Controls a Robotic Dog From Orbit

DLR's four-legged robot Bert explores and monitors the unfamiliar environment. The Surface Avatar Experiment rehearsed an important scenario for future exploration missions on the Moon and Mars. Bert is being developed at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and can walk, trot, gallop, perform a passing gait and even climb. This enables him to cover long distances and at the same time move around in rough terrain or small caves. Credit: DLR.

Swedish astronaut Marcus Wandt took control of a series of robots in Germany while on board the International Space Station, zipping around the Earth at 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 mph.) Researchers want to understand how time delays can affect the remote control of robots from an orbiting platform. Future astronauts could control rovers on the Moon’s or Mars’s surface from a spacecraft in orbit. Until now, only wheeled rovers have been part of the tests, but now they have added a dog-like robot called Bert.

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Future Moon and Mars Rovers Have a New Sandbox to Learn in

In-situ testing for space equipment is complex when it has to be developed on Earth, which is the case for literally all of it, at least for now. Typically, engineers and scientists developing the next Lunar or Martian robotic explorer would seek out exotic destinations that, while they look like they fit on another planet, were just more exotic parts of ours. The robotics team at DLR, Germany’s space agency, decided they could do better. So they built a 1500 sq meter test bed for their upcoming Martian and Lunar exploration bots.

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A Maglev System On The Moon Could Make Lunar Logistics A Breeze

Maglevs are one of those technologies that still look like magic, even years after they were initially rolled out. While they have long been a workhorse of the transportation systems of some major cities, they don’t often impact the day-to-day lives of people who don’t use them to commute. But, they might be invaluable in another setting – lunar exploration. There’s an ongoing debate about the best way to shuttle stuff around on the Moon’s surface, and a team from JPL and a company called SRI International think they have a solution – deploy a maglev track on the Moon.

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Robots in orbit are becoming even more popular. There are still many technical challenges ahead.

The robotic Canadarm during STS-72, as Space Shuttle Endeavour mission in 1996. Image: By NASA -, Public Domain,

Robots will be one of the keys to the expanding in-space economy. As launch costs decrease, hopefully significantly when Starship and other massive lift systems come online, the most significant barrier to entry for the space economy will finally come down. So what happens then? Two acronyms have been popping up in the literature with increasing frequency – in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) and On-orbit servicing (OOS). Over a series of articles, we’ll look at some papers detailing what those acronyms mean and where they might be going shortly. First, we’ll examine how robots fit into the equation.

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An Astronaut Will Be Controlling Several Robots on Earth… from Space

Germany’s DLR has been hosting a series of robotic teleoperation experiments where an astronaut abroad the ISS controls a robot back on the ground. We’ve previously reported on some of their successes. Now it’s time for the next round of experiments, with one individual astronaut on the ISS controlling four separate robots to perform a task back on Earth.

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NASA Tests a Robotic Snake That Could Explore Other Worlds

A snake-like robot called EELS is tested at a ski resort in Southern California to determine how well it can traverse across snowy environments. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Rovers have enabled some amazing explorations of other worlds like the Moon and Mars. However, rovers are limited by the terrain they can reach. To explore inaccessible terrain, NASA is testing a versatile snake-like robot that could crawl up steep slopes, slither across ice, and even slide into lava tubes. Called Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (or EELS), this robot could cross different terrains and create a 3D map of its surrounding to autonomously pick its course, avoiding hazards to reach its destination.

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Astronauts Could Mix and Match Parts to Make the Perfect Robot for Any Job

Building with Legos is a favored pastime for many small children and adults. We’ve even covered some more space-oriented Lego sets here at UT. But, as the Lego movie points out, they constitute “a highly sophisticated interlocking brick system.” So why not take the idea underpinning Legos – that you can make anything you want out of a set of generic pieces and apply it to a much more serious scientific topic…like robots.

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An Earthworm Robot Could Help Us Explore Other Worlds

This new soft robot is inspired by earthworms and can crawl thanks to soft actuators that elongate or squeeze when air passes through them or is drawn out. Image Credit: IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Evolution is a problem-solver, and one of the problems it solved in many different ways is locomotion. Birds fly. Fish swim. Animals walk.

But earthworms found another way to move around the niche they occupy. Can we copy them to explore other worlds?

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When Should Robots Take Risks Exploring Other Worlds?

The path followed by Perseverance in the Jezero Crater since landing in February 2021. Credit: NASA

On May 1st, 2009, after five years on the Martian surface, the Spirit rover got stuck in a patch of soft sand (where it would remain for the rest of its mission). On February 13th, 2019, NASA officials declared that Spirit’s sister – the Opportunity rover – had concluded its mission after a planetary dust storm forced it into hibernation mode about seven months prior. And in March 2017, the Curiosity rover’s wheels showed signs of their first break, thanks to years of traveling over rough terrain. Such are the risks of sending rover missions to other planets in search of discoveries that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.

But what constitutes an acceptable risk for a robotic mission, and when are mission controllers justified in taking them? As it turns out, a pair of researchers from the Robotics Institute‘s School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh have developed a new approach for weighing the risks against the scientific value of sending planetary rovers into dangerous situations. The researchers are now working with NASA to implement their approach for future robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and other potentially-hazardous environments in the Solar System.

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