Drones in electrostatic suspension to explore the Moon

Drones are on the rise on Earth so why not on other planets where they could be used in large numbers for massive and efficient exploration? Problem, there is no real atmosphere on the Moon and even less on asteroids like Psyche or Ceres. However, engineers from MIT are working on drones that are said to be electrostatic levitating there.

The return of the noosphere to the Moon is imminent with the mission Artemis. But one can reasonably think that Homo sapiens will not tread the regolith lunar before 2025. In the meantime, it is likely that robotic missions will multiply on the surface of our satellite. We certainly already have a remarkable knowledge of the surface of the Moon thanks to the resolution images of the LRO probe (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) which is indeed less than a meter. But countless surprises are perhaps hidden in these images and would require to take the full measure of being able to examine directly on the surface of the Moon places to which LRO would have drawn attention.

A collection of images taken by the LRO probe. © Nasa Scientific Visualization Studio

ET technosignatures and exotic planetology?

To be convinced of this and to dream a little, remember that almost a decade ago, the famous physicist Paul Davies had proposed in an article published in 2013, Searching for alien artifacts on the moon, to enlist Internet users to look in the LRO images for possible technosignatures of extraterrestrial explorers who have left, perhaps, the equivalent of monolith black from 2001: a space odyssey. Davies and his student at the time, Robert Wagner, were in fact renewing a concept already explored by a Ukrainian radio astronomer who was a member of Seti, Alexey Arkhipov, in addition to attempts to detect traces of extraterrestrial civilizations building space stations or who would be distinguished by the lighting of their towns.

It was therefore a question of looking more generally on the Moon for the remains of extraterrestrial civilizations, such as buildings and mines, left perhaps millions of years ago by a mission to explore our Blue Planet.

Indeed, it is completely improbable that the development of humanity will coincide within only a few thousand years with that of an advanced ET civilization. If an extraterrestrial exploration mission has indeed visited our Solar System, no doubt in the form of super IA, it is likely that the event took place millions or even hundreds of millions of years ago. For such a mission, which would have come to study at length and more closely the biosphere terrestrial, the most logical and the most convenient would be the installation of a lunar base. However, the tectonically stable and erosion-free environment of the Moon is much more conducive than that of the Earth to the conservation of artefacts.

But even without going that far, there are undoubtedly areas of the Moon’s surface where one would expect to find interesting phenomena that would merit closer examination. We can be convinced of this here too by thinking of the famous discovery of « orange soil » by Apollo 17 or the presence of lunar swirls.

This could be the task of rovers and even drones, as is already the case on Mars currently. But how could drones fly on the surface of the Moon when its atmosphere is even more incredibly thin than that of Mars?

Electrostatic antigravity

Aerospace engineers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have a beginning of an answer – they explain it in an article published in Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. For the moment, this is mainly a theoretical study but it is not limited to the Moon, the concept studied is relevant and would also apply to the exploration of small asteroids, as stated in a press release from MIT one of the authors of the study, Paulo Lozano, Professor M. Alemán-Velasco of aeronautics andastronautics and director of Space Propulsion Lab you with :  » With a levitating rover, you don’t have to worry about wheels or parts mobiles. The terrain of an asteroid can be completely uneven, and as long as you have a controlled mechanism to keep your rover floating, you can traverse very rugged and unexplored terrain. ».

The antigravity force, so to speak, that engineers want to harness is quite simply the force electrostatic. Indeed, without the protective shield of the Earth’s atmosphere, the Moon or asteroids are exposed to the space vacuum traversed by the breath of the Soleil. As a result of which their surfaces become charged to the point of causing on the Moon a levitation of dust particles more than a meter above the ground.

The idea is therefore to electrically charge the surface of a drone, or of a rover, so that the surface of planetary bodies, which is also charged, repels them electrostatically. In the study presented by Lozano and his colleagues Oliver Jia-Richards and Sebastian Hampl, these machines, currently weighing around one kilo, are equipped with generators d’ions small sizes. They are produced from a salt reservoir liquid and it takes a low consumption ofenergy to speed them up.

Calculations show that for the moment it would also be necessary to increase the surface electric charge under the drone or the rover, which is perfectly possible to do with these same ion generators that they would eject in the direction of the surface of the Moon or asteroid. For now, only a one-centimeter rise is expected, but engineers are confident they can do much better.

Their reflections are not only based on concepts, they are also beginning to be nourished by very concrete laboratory experiences. So they made a small hexagonal test vehicle weighing about 60 grams and measuring about the size of the palm of a hand. They then fitted it with an ion thruster pointing up and four pointing down, then suspended the vehicle on an aluminum surface from two calibrated springs to counter the gravitational force of the earth. The entire installation was then placed in a vacuum chamber to partially simulate the conditions of interplanetary space.

What about the future exploration of the Moon according to ESA? To obtain a fairly accurate French translation, click on the white rectangle at the bottom right. The English subtitles should then appear. Then click on the nut to the right of the rectangle, then on « Subtitles » and finally on « Translate automatically ». Choose « French ». © European Space Agency, THAT

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