NASA Dispatches Robots to Deploy Telescopes on Moon Surface
As the United States races to put humans back on the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA-funded lab in Colorado aims to send robots to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.
The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects underway by the US space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.
Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project, said: "This is not your grandfather's Apollo program that we're looking at."
"This is really a very different kind of program and very importantly it's going to involve machines and humans working together," Burns said in an interview at his lab on the Boulder campus.
According to Reuters, Burns' team will send a rover aboard a lunar lander spacecraft to the far side of the moon. The rover will rumble across the craggy and rough surface - featuring a mountain taller than any on earth - to set up a network of radio telescopes with little help from humans.
Astronauts will be able to control the rover's single robotic arm from an orbital lunar outpost called Gateway, which an international consortium of space agencies is building. The platform will provide access to and from the moon's surface and serve as a refueling station for deep space missions.
The rover, being built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will plant the shoebox-sized telescopes on the moon's regolith - the dust, soil and broken rock that covers its surface.
Unfettered by the noisy radio interference and light that hinders Earth-bound space observations, the telescopes will peer into the cosmic void, looking back in time to the early formation of our solar system, Burns says.
Ben Mellinkoff, a graduate student at the university, and two of his colleagues, are working out of a small lab on the Boulder campus, where they have built a prototype of the robot named Armstrong (named for the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong).
On a recent visit, Mellinkoff controlled the robotic arm using an X-box gaming controller, driving it toward an assortment of shoe-sized objects created with 3-D printing and resembling the radio telescopes to be planted on the moon.
Keith Tauscher, Mellinkoff's fellow, is working on a lunar orbiter designed to take advantage of the radio silence of the far side of the moon to discover when the first stars and black-holes formed during the formation of the universe. The work in Boulder and elsewhere underscores NASA's plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Another key difference between the Apollo program and the Artemis program, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine named the new lunar initiative in May, is bringing in help from commercial partners such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. Those companies are working to slash the cost of rocket launches with a longer-term ambition of doing their own projects on the moon and eventually Mars.
"It's a new way of operating in which the private sector is intimately entangled with NASA," Burns said.
He predicts that in roughly 20 years, the moon will be dotted with inflatable hotels for deep-pocketed tourists and mining sites where robotic drills dig under the moon's south pole for frozen water that can be synthesized into rocket fuel for missions back to Earth or further out to Mars.