almost 50 years, scientists have been sending rovers – or space exploration vehicles – to the Moon and Mars to explore their wealth, discover new resources and materials. Now the big guns are running the show, the XPRIZE Foundation organized a competition sponsored by Google, and lately car manufacturers have been trying to enter the race. Such technologies have already benefitted space exploration and mining, and helped to raise the competitiveness between engineers and companies in general. Prior to the participation of Chanda Gonzales (Google Lunar XPRIZE) to the Space Forum, but also with the on-site presence of Japanese (Ispace) and German (PTScientists) Lunar Space Rovers at the Luxembourgish Space Summit, BEAST walks you through this incredible adventure.
The early years of space rovers
After Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969, the Soviet Union was able to produce and send the very first mobile vehicles, called the Lunokhod, to the Moon. The first one was sent on November 10, 1970 and the second one on 8 January 1973. These were remotely piloted and carried television cameras. These rovers were also able to measure the physical and chemical properties of the soil. While Lunokhod 1 was only active for 10 months and 20 days, it was still able to cover more than 10 km and took more than 20,000 photographs. The second rover lasted even less time, but was lighter and more efficient: it produced 80,000 pictures, and cover 39 km, 3 km shy of the distance of a Marathon!
During the last three last Apollo missions – 15, 16 and 17, between 1971 and 1972 – NASA sent three Lunar Roving Vehicles along with the crew. Also, these «Moon buggies» were not remotely controlled and the astronauts had to drive them. Today, the three LRVs remain on the Moon.
40 years later, China found a new interest in the Moon and decided to send Yutu, its unmanned lunar rover on mission to the Moon. Operated by the China National Space Administration, Yutu used solar energy and went several time in sleeping mode… but suffered a malfunction in its driving unit and covered less than 200m. In October 2015, the Chinese rover set the record for the longest operational period on the Moon. Even though Yutu has actually been immobile since January 25, 2014, it still transmitted every lunar day up until December 2015.
When Google, XPRIZE and Space X get together…
Stimulating creativity and encouraging technological innovations is the aim of the X Prize Foundation. Its CEO is non-other than space tycoon Peter Diamandis, who has participated in many space innovations and initiatives, but the creation of the foundation may be his biggest accomplishment, as he has managed to bring Elon Musk, James Cameron, Ariana Huffington and Larry Page on board. The Google Lunar XPRIZE competition was officially launched in 2007 and aimed to put a robotic rover on the Moon by 2012. The deadline has been pushed several times and the 16 remaining teams have until December 31, 2016 to secure a verified launch contract and therefore stay in the competition. So far, only two teams, SpaceIL and Moon Express were able to obtain such a contract.
Even more surprising is Audi’s interest in the business of space rovers. The German car manufacturer is currently preparing the launch of its Lunar Quattro rover, which they plan to hand over to Part-Time Scientists, a Berlin-based engineering group that is competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE project. Launch into space is planned for the end of 2017. The New Space Race is on.
From the Moon to Mars
Over the past 20 years, focus has dramatically shifted to sending rovers to the the Red Planet rather than on the Moon. NASA launched its Mars Observer mission as early as 1992 but communication with the spacecraft was lost 11 months later. Five years later, in 1997, Sojourner landed successfully on Mars. It explored the Red Plant for almost three months, but covered just over 100 m. More than 10 years later NASA was finally able to send two rovers to the planet, named Spirit and Opportunity. While Spirit ended his mission in 2011, which consisted of searching for proof of water mainly though the exploration of soil and rocks, Opportunity is still active and currently looking for traces of ancient life. A third rover, Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012, again, to let us know which resources could be available on the Red Planet.
In this respect, the government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg presented in early February its revolutionary and ambitious space mining plan, which aims to give access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources, without damaging natural habitats, as explained by Etienne Schneider, Minister of the Economy. Rick Tumlinson, Chairman of Deep Space Industry commented: «There are moments when the world changes. By joining the U.S., private citizens and companies who are moving outwards into space, Luxembourg is making this time in history one of those moments».
Alexandre Keilmann - @Alex_Klmnn