6 mins read 19 Oct 2021

Australian Rover to Head to the Moon

The Australian Space Agency and NASA have signed an agreement for an Australian-built rover to head to the Moon in a future NASA mission as early as 2026.

December 1972- The crescent Earth rises above the lunar horizon captured from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in lunar orbit during NASA’s final lunar landing mission in the Apollo program. Credit: NASA.

The Australian Space Agency and NASA have entered an agreement that will see an Australian-built small, semi-autonomous rover sent to the Moon, potentially as early as 2026. The rover will be deployed on the Moon by NASA’s lunar lander and will be used to collect regolith (soil) from the surface of the Moon. The Australian rover will complement the lander’s capabilities, increasing the chances of a successful mission.  

Regolith is the layer of loose, unconsolidated rock and dust that sits on top of bedrock. On the Moon, it is a mixture of powdery dust and broken rock which also contains oxygen in the form of oxides. 

Once collected, the regolith will then be transferred to NASA’s in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) system on the lunar lander where it will attempt to extract the oxide from the regolith. Not only could this be used to supplement oxygen supplies in the future, but it could also potentially be a source of fuel. This is a key goal towards establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon and supporting future missions to Mars. 

The small rover needs to be under 20kg, and semi-autonomous to conduct its primary ‘foundation service’ task of collecting lunar regolith to a NASA payload. ‘Foundation services’ are activities that support exploration missions such as monitoring and remote inspection, remote maintenance, materials transport, and component manufacture and assembly. 

An industry-led consortium of Australian businesses and research organisations will develop the foundation services rover with possible International partners’ support. 

“Australia is at the cutting-edge of robotics technology and systems for remote operations, which are going to be central to setting up a sustainable presence on the Moon and eventually supporting human exploration of Mars,” said Enrico Palermo, head of the Australian Space Agency. 

“This agreement will leverage our expertise in remote operations to grow our space sector here at home, while developments that come from preparing for space will make sure our resources sector keeps powering ahead too.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “This agreement will serve to strengthen the long-time relationship between the United States and Australia in areas related to space exploration – a relationship that goes back more than half a century to the days of the Apollo program.

“By working together with the Australian Space Agency and our partners around the world, NASA will uncover more discoveries and accomplish more research through the Artemis program.”

Trailblazer Program

NASA is sending the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the south pole of the Moon to sample various soil environments. Planned for delivery in December 2022, VIPER will collect about 100 days of data to develop the first global water resource map of the Moon. Credit: Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter.

The Australian rover project will be supported by \$50 million in funding from the Trailblazer program under the Australian Government’s \$150 million Moon to Mars initiative. Leading Australian businesses and researchers will come together to develop the rover to play a role in NASA’s Artemis mission to go to the Moon and then on to Mars.  

Minister for Science and Technology Melissa Price said the milestone agreement would usher in a new era for the Australian space sector.

“With our expertise in robotics technology, NASA wants to partner with us on this project to the Moon, creating our own lunar history,” Minister Price said.

“As well as putting Australia front and centre for scientific discoveries, our \$50 million in support gives Australian businesses and researchers the opportunity to contribute to NASA’s mission to the Moon and beyond.

“It will build the Australian space sector’s capability and capacity and showcase Australia’s strengths to the world, as well as inspire a whole new generation of young people to enter careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia’s mission to the Moon would contribute to growing our economy in our COVID-19 recovery, and create more jobs for Australians.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Australia to succeed in the global space sector, and is central to our Government’s vision to secure more jobs and a larger share of the growing space economy,” the Prime Minister said.

Trailblazer program guidelines are due to be released later this year with applications to be submitted in early 2022. 

In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU)

A full view of Gateway that includes elements from international partners. Built with commercial and international partners, the Gateway is critical to sustainable lunar exploration and will serve as a model for future missions to Mars. Credit: NASA Johnson.

As NASA readies to return to the Moon with the Artemis program, plans are also underway to create a sustainable infrastructure that will allow astronauts and scientists to explore and study more of the Moon for far greater periods than ever before.

NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative was created as a portfolio to enable human and robotic exploration on the Moon, and future operations on Mars. Part of the technology development and demonstrations under this program include using the Moon’s resources (such as regolith), building machinery and electronics that can work in extreme conditions and establishing sustainable power during the lunar day/night cycles. 

As humans travel further into space, the more important it will be to generate what is needed from local resources. The in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) system on the lunar lander will be the demonstration for future missions to Mars to use an available space-based resource, in this case, lunar soil, as a source of oxygen or fuel. This is where the Australian rover comes in. The small-scale technology demonstration will aid in the design of larger, more capable units in the future. 

ISRU in the form of solar arrays to generate power is already in use on the International Space Station (ISS) and is planned for the Gateway. The Gateway is a key component of the Artemis program. It is planned to be an outpost orbiting the Moon that provides vital support for both future Moon missions as well as deep space exploration. 

The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) is a high-power, 60-kilowatt solar electric propulsion spacecraft that will provide power, high-rate communications, attitude control, and orbital transfer capabilities for the Gateway.

Using ISRU, future missions could eventually see space-based resources transformed into breathable air, water, fuel and more.