So NASA is taking humankind back to the moon under a program called Artemis. The significance is more than just the fact that the last person walked on the moon almost 50 years with Apollo 17. It is significant because NASA is planning a permanent presence on the moon; so the program represents the steps that human kind is taking to venture forth from our cradle to set foot permanently this time (for the conspiracy theorists the first time), on another celestial body.
NASA is planning on sending several crewed missions to the lunar south pole with the first crewed landing (Artemis III) taking the first woman astronaut to the moon.(1) While those initial missions will have astronauts explore the surface of the moon for only a week(2), which will be more than twice as long as the Apollo 17 stay(3), these missions will eventually involve pressurised rovers and surface habitats allowing the astronauts to stay for missions longer than a month(2) building up a permanent lunar base.
Back on Earth the Australian Defence Force and its allies look towards autonomous and automated systems. These systems have the potential to play an important part in the future of both humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations as well as open conflict. The Australian Army’s robotic and autonomous system strategy highlights key areas such as maximising soldier performance, improved decision making, generating mass and scalable effects through human-machine teaming, protecting the force and efficiency(4).
So, what can going to the moon teach us and how does the NASA mission and the Army’s robotic and autonomous strategy align?
Prior to landing humans on the moon there is going to be a pre-deployment of equipment. Even with the third mission, Artemis III, which will be the first crewed mission to the surface, there are 51 weeks without humans on the moon. This means that the return to the moon will rely on many remotely operated, remotely commanded, automated and autonomous systems. This will involve the establishment of infrastructure like power and communications, carrying out survey and mapping missions, conducting science, In-Situ Resource Utilisation, or potentially basic construction such as clearing landing sites for the SpaceX Lunar Starship.
With the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars and supply chain grant programs along with the modern manufacturing initiative grants, the Australian Government is providing funding that is able to support many Australian small to medium enterprises who can provide some of the solutions for the Artemis program and space in general. Concepts that are being developed for the moon are translatable to the defence environment here on Earth, resulting in small companies that have never worked in or with the defence industry potentially providing part of the capability of tomorrow.
Teaming Systems: The lunar environment will rely on many separate systems being remotely operated or working with some level of automation and autonomy. This will translate to a complex system of systems architecture that may involve a combination of mobile and fixed systems from various nations – both government and private – interfacing in a cooperative and reliable way. This will no doubt test various system decision systems, navigation, mobility, and communications standards just with machines operating with machines. When humans arrive; however, the architecture will increase in complexity with an adjustment in its hierarchy of controls to allow humans to safely operate and travel in a machine-dominant environment. There will be many lessons to be gained, not only from individual system design but from that system of systems architecture and the control of a larger operational environment.
Reliability: The Moon’s environment is some of the most harsh that any human-built system will have come across. If it’s not the radiation it will be the thermal environment; if not the thermal environment it will be the dust; if it’s not the dust it will be the fact that NASA wants a system to last 10 years; if the 10 years is not the problem then it’s the costs and complexity of a spares pipeline, meaning there may not be one. This means to be reliable and still meet the environmental and operational challenges of the lunar environment, certain technologies within Australia are being looked at:
- Novel and advanced manufacturing processes, especially in additive manufacturing. This has the potential to locally provide high quality production that is able to support topology optimised structures.
- Material selected for the moon’s harsh environment will need the ability to survive the thermal and radiation requirements. The radiation will destroy many of the electronics and degrade metals and composites while the temperature ranges, from +120 degrees celsius(5) to -271 celsius(6) will degrade materials quickly through extreme thermal shock. The Australian industry will be involved in the development of novel materials that can support these extreme environments.
- Dust is the bane of any system on the lunar surface. Lunar dust will adhere and jam or break systems. The dust is also like glass due to the lack of atmosphere and will wear down all materials. Both active and passive dust mitigation systems will have application to systems working in harsh environments. The material coatings can have application from the ground to the aerospace industry on all forms of aircraft.
- Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS) will be essential. While this may appear a tautology, the HUMS system is not just real time monitoring but also predictive monitoring. It needs to also integrate with the system to take action without human intervention as well as allow remote operators to intervene where required.
Power Systems: NASA has a requirement for systems to last through a 100 hour eclipse(5) which means not only do systems need to be extremely power efficient, but also the ability to replenish power for remote systems becomes critical. The development of efficient electronic devices will be important; however, the development of efficient power generation and storage systems will be essential. The deployment of electric vehicles and systems on the lunar surface will provide an opportunity to: refine and enhance current battery technology, improve on power generation systems such as solar power, and explore new technology such as betavoltaics – a form of a nuclear battery. These power generation elements can be deployed in individual systems such as a rover or a lunar habitat or they can be used to establish micro-grids that will service a broader system architecture.
Navigation: There is no Global Positioning System (GPS) on the moon, it is the ultimate in GPS denied environments. Establishing some form of navigation system is – on paper – straight forward as the technology is mature on Earth. However, the moon does not have the same stable orbits Earth does, it is a much harsher environment than the systems we have at present, and it costs a lot to get there. This is allowing the concepts of surface based pseudo-satellites(5), localised sensors, and even quantum navigation(6). The operating environment will dictate requirements that will require these technologies to support crewed and un-crewed operations: be reliable, low power, and portable. It offers a unique solution to take navigation technology and adapt it for terrestrial applications on Earth.
Survey and Mapping: One of the key reasons for going back to the moon is to understand more about Earth and carry out experiments. Another is to seek resources to support a permanent presence off Earth. The ability to survey and map places no human has been to before and not only build maps for other people and autonomous systems but also characterise the surface and sub-surface elements will be critical(9). Being able to detect materials and features both on and below the surface will be an essential mission for some of these autonomous systems.
Remote Operations: This is really focusing on the operational concept in a broader aspect. The systems will need to be self-deployed from their own lander(5) as well as preparing for humans to land. Key operations among the robotic missions will be establishing and installing the supporting infrastructure such as communications, power, shielding, waste disposal, storage and logistics(2) – and most likely a landing pad for the SpaceX Lunar Starship. They key objective is to remove the need for humans in location to actually set up and establish these services, but rather have them established before humans once again set foot upon the lunar surface.
In-Situ Resource Utilisation: Is a specific type of mission that will often be associated with digging up ice on the moon. However, it is much more than that in its intent. It is leveraging the local environment to establish a sustainable presence. In a terrestrial context this would include the ability to produce clean water, establish a micro power-grid that may be able to make use of waste or by-products in the surrounding environment, creating of biofuels, and creation of basic shelters and buildings. These types of systems are being developed in order to be deployed in some of the most remote and environmentally harsh environments.
There are many lessons that are being learned right now by organisations and individuals around the world. Some of these technologies being developed are early in their readiness; however, the NASA plan to not only establish a permanent presence on the moon but also build a pathway to a human presence on Mars will depend on the development and continuous improvement of these systems.
What is most exciting is the role Australia and Australian industry can be and is playing in the Artemis program. This includes a significant academic and research component of the Australian space industry, with many of the above lessons having at least one Australian organisation that is addressing those criteria. This means that these lessons are not an abstract concept, they are not science fiction, and not specific to the US. Rather these lessons are being learned by Australian industry and building that critical Australian Industry Capability that the Australian Defence Force relies on.