The Next Giant Leaps
BBC Earth|November - December 2020
From spider robots to antennas on the Cornish coast, these UK-based projects are laying the groundwork for a permanent station on the Moon
Dr Stuart Clark

About this time next year, a small robotic spider may be taking its first tentative steps on the Moon. It’s not exactly The Spiders From Mars, but the late David Bowie will have played a part in getting it there.

Pavlo Tanasyuk, CEO and founder of the British company Spacebit, remembers once listening to David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and wondering about one day building rovers with legs rather than wheels. The idea lay dormant until Tanasyuk was visiting a friend at the Japan Aerospace Agency (JAXA), and mentioned his long-held idea of a spider robot on Mars or the Moon. The friend responded immediately with the Japanese proverb of the asagumo, the morning spider who brings fortune. “That’s when it clicked, and I decided that we actually should be doing this rover,” says Tanasyuk.

He incorporated the UK company Spacebit to begin developing the asagumo spider robot. The launch is now scheduled for July 2021, on board the Peregrine lander that has been developed by the private American company Astrobotic. Peregrine will be flown on a Vulcan Centaur rocket, and if all goes to plan, asagumo will be the UK’s first lunar lander.

Walking on the Moon is tricky because of the regolith, which is the layer of rock fragments and dust that covers the lunar surface. For a walking rover, the dangers are two-fold. First, the legs can sink into this layer, impeding the movement. Second, the dust and fragments can get into the articulated parts of the legs and the motors, causing them to cease up.

To overcome the first problem, Spacebit is designing the legs to look more like ski poles, which have pads on its ends to stop them disappearing beneath the surface. As for the second, it is a risk that the team are willing to take because they don’t want their rover to walk on the surface indefinitely, just long enough to get to their real target: a lunar lava tube.

LAVA PALAVER

A lava tube is a natural tunnel formed by rivers of lava flowing away from a volcano. The top of the flow is exposed to the cooling air, which gradually hardens to solid rock, forming a roof over the lava flow. When the lava has all drained away, it leaves an empty lava tube. Since the Moon was once volcanically active, there are thought to be an abundance of lava tubes there.

Inside a lava tube, there is much less dust but more rocks, so legs are better suited to clambering over obstacles. “We already did tests in the lava tubes of Mount Fuji in Japan. I went inside the lava tube with the rover, and we tested how it walks. Basically, we can see that the legs are better suited for the lava tubes than wheels [as legs let the robot clamber over obstacles],” says Tanasyuk.

There are some lava tubes in the vicinity of the Peregrine lander’s touchdown area, and one of these will be the first target for the asagumo. The reason for the interest in lava tubes is that human bases may one day be constructed inside these natural rock formations.

While Spacebit may be sending the UK’s first Moon lander, it is far from the only UK space mission that is currently in development. Indeed, it is just the tip of the lunar iceberg.

FIRST STEPS

The UK’s lunar expertise has been built up since the days of NASA’s Apollo missions, which took astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Planetary scientists Grenville Turner and Colin Pillinger were two pioneers of UK space science. They were held in such high esteem that they were granted access to the lunar rocks that the American Apollo astronauts brought back to Earth. This was an accolade in itself. “You had to be the best in the field to get access to these samples,” says Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency. She adds that Pillinger and Turner were “wizards at instrumentation”.

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