Back in 2018, CORDIS reported how the LUVMI project had devised a new kind of lightweight Moon exploration rover. Fresh from the discovery of frozen water in shadowed lunar craters, a team of researchers led by Space Application Services had built the first rover prototype capable of exploring the Moon’s craters in search of ice. Eventually, the project would be tasked with locating what future explorers will need to establish a long-term settlement on the Moon. Three years later, the development of the new rover is still going strong thanks to EU support under the LUVMI-X (LUVMI-Extended) follow-up project. The rover from 2018 has changed considerably. It now comes equipped with new instruments to detect volatiles in remote locations, study the lunar environment and its impact on human health, and measure in-situ resource utilisation. Jeremi Gancet, coordinator of the project, agreed to answer a few questions about the rover’s new features and what remains to be done before it can finally shoot off for the Moon.
Humanity went to the Moon over 40 years ago. How come there are still so many gaps in our understanding of its resources, environment and the possibility of living there?
Jeremi Gancet: Apollo achievements half a century ago were extraordinary. But huge gaps indeed remain in our knowledge and understanding of the lunar geology and environmental conditions. Apollo astronauts spent a total of 3.5 days on the surface of the Moon (over six missions) and performed as much science as possible within this limited timeframe and with the technologies available at the time. We learned a lot, but this was only a starting point. There are still many more things we don’t know about the Moon than things we do! Several probes recently helped analyse the geological characteristics of the Moon from lunar orbit and provided evidence of the presence of volatiles (water ice) in polar regions and some craters of the Moon. The utilisation of such resources may be a game changer for space exploration, and over the past 10 years we saw some sort of ‘lunar exploration renaissance’ momentum, with spacefaring nations expressing a growing interest in going back to the Moon. This was also fostered by the rise of private actors offering competitive solutions to fly and land spacecrafts: the return of humans to the lunar surface will be possible in a few years at a fraction of the cost of the Apollo programme. This leads us to the LUVMI-X concept. Robotic solutions such as lunar rovers bring and deploy sensors in promising areas, kilometres away from landing sites. This is what we want to achieve, with an affordable ‘mobility solution’ that can carry and deploy a variety of scientific instruments to remote locations where the scientific return is expected to be the highest.
Rovers are being developed all across the world now. What makes LUVMI-X stand out?
LUVMI-X includes both innovative instruments for lunar science and the rover itself which can bring and operate those instruments in suitable locations. Our rover can accommodate a selection of sensors to address scientific questions of the highest priority to the community. Volatiles, in particular, are of paramount interest: we still have key questions related to their geographical distribution, their composition, the depth where they may be found, etc. The LUVMI-X rover is a rather small platform that weighs less than 90 kg with all payloads on board. It is very mobile – it can drive over rocks of up to 30 cm in height – and provides a standardised solution to host scientific payloads. The LUVMI-X rover may accommodate instruments in three different manners: as fixed payloads, as droppable payloads and as throwable payloads (up to 50 m distance from the rover). With this concept, we expect LUVMI-X to meet the demand and expectations of many scientists and make the Moon more accessible for science.
You’ve also come up with creative ideas targeting the broader public like a simulation and a tutorial on how to build a rover. What do you hope to achieve with these concepts?
These tools can help people better understand the challenges posed by lunar missions, the technologies involved and how LUVMI-X can help. Space and lunar exploration are great topics to foster imagination and engage with the broader public, especially youth. Some LUVMI-X partners are particularly eager to make LUVMI-X an educational instrument. For instance, the Open University produced comprehensive educational material for primary and secondary school students, which should soon be made widely available through our website and other channels.
What would you say are the most important outcomes of the project so far?
We are at a key moment of the project, with partners working on the manufacturing and testing of the different LUVMI-X components. It is already a success for us to have all LUVMI-X instruments and the rover platform design completed at this point in time, especially when considering all the hurdles COVID-19 generated. We suffered from restricted access to laboratories, the impossibility of travelling and collocating, delays in parts manufacturing, etc. The integration of partners’ contributions to the LUVMI-X rover is the next major step, which should allow us to proceed with the final test campaign in ‘analogue’ locations, that is, in outdoor (natural) or indoor (artificial) areas having certain similarities with the lunar environment.
What happens after that? When do you send your rover to the Moon?
By the end of the project in October 2021, we will have a preliminary design of the flight version and a ground model tested in relevant locations. But a maturation gap remains to make LUVMI-X truly ready for flight: the overall flight design should be further refined, and flight grade parts – which are very expensive – procured. Once this is all behind us, the overall platform will need to undergo a comprehensive battery of qualification tests, including vacuum, thermal and vibration. The overall maturation process is demanding and costly, and would probably span 3 to 4 years after the completion of the LUVMI-X project. We hope that the first LUVMI-X rover will fly to the Moon by 2025!
What do you hope will be the long-term impact of the project?
The LUVMI-X concept includes instruments that will help characterise lunar soil properties and exposure to radiations, identify volatiles’ composition and abundance… the science return will be very high if LUVMI-X indeed moves to the next stage. These scientific outcomes should help us better understand the Moon’s geology and history, as well as prepare for a human return to its surface. They should also further the development of technologies enabling the use of local resources – in support of human presence on the Moon of course, but also in preparation for farther space exploration.
LUVMI-X, LUVMI, rover, space exploration, Moon, volatiles, water