Why you should care
Because how cool would it be to live in a “moon village”?
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Humans living in a village on the moon might sound like the backdrop for a sci-fi movie, but the European Space Agency (ESA) believes it’s a realistic scenario. When scanning the moon as a potential destination for human settlement — or, at the very least, interstellar travel expeditions — the agency is homing in on lava tubes, which are molten rock tunnels where lava once flowed. Since the moon is not sheltered from the sun’s radiation like the Earth, people hanging out on the lunar surface for an extended period must stay underground — and these tunnels could be a cheaper alternative to constructing habitation modules buried in the ground. Good news, until you realize that inspecting these tunnels for habitable areas would be too dangerous for astronauts and too small for rovers. But Norwegian researchers have come up with a possible solution: snake robots that can maneuver through, in and around these lunar crevices.
Nearly 50 years since man first stepped on the moon, the ESA is plotting out a “moon village.” But rather than drawing up blueprints of housing developments or commercial buildings on the rocky terrain, the agency uses the term loosely to refer to a “community” where anyone from any country can arrive and help bring the concept of a lunar base to fruition. In January, ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner told a group at a Paris press conference about “a list of worldwide entities” interested in activities on the moon, and that the moon village for him “is already more or less a fact.” There are no visible buildings on the moon yet, but Woerner insists there will be soon, as these interested parties move ahead, and he has shared visions ranging from 3D-printed infrastructure to regular shuttles that will transport humans to and from the moon as early as 2024. NASA, with its sights set on a future mission to Mars, also stands to benefit: Considering the potential that lunar soil and water ice in craters could be mined and converted to fuel, a detour to the moon to refuel during a journey to Mars could reduce the mass of a mission upon launch by 68 percent, according to a study conducted by MIT.
The robots’ potential to help with both terrestrial and extraterrestrial applications should not be underestimated.
Which brings us back to snake robots, the missing link between where we are today and where the ESA wants to be in the not-so-distant future. These AI-powered creatures could land on the moon, rappel down a tether line or be lowered by a crane into lava tubes and then weasel their way in and out until they find the most pristine spots for human settlement, according to Norwegian research company SINTEF. Aksel Transeth, senior scientist for SINTEF, says these slithering robots would be packed with sensors, including a camera and laser, as well as tools, such as a mechanism for retrieving soil samples for further analysis. Inspired by SINTEF’s Anna Konda, a self-propelling firefighting snake robot that’s essentially a mobile water hose, these snakes could explore the moon’s lava tubes to identify areas that are most suitable for protecting settlers from harmful exposure to cosmic radiation and meteorites. Then, during phase two of the moon village build-out, the snakes could be used to inspect and clean the structures, Transeth says.
Not so fast. Before we unleash an army of robot snakes into space, SINTEF says it needs to evaluate if these serpentine robots can actually do the job. It would seem that enlisting robot snakes to carry out inspections and maintenance on the International Space Station is a more reasoned and realistic first step. “A snake robot could creep behind the sections, carry out an inspection and perhaps even perform small maintenance tasks,” Transeth says. Deploying snake robots to study comets might be another mission to consider before they set a course for the moon.
The road to a moon village also has technical hurdles to overcome. “Several snake robots have been developed over the years, but very few have been taken into use commercially,” Transeth explains. And the moon’s rocky terrain poses its own set of challenges. A large vertical drop to get into a lava tube could make it nearly impossible for a snake robot to enter, and these gadgets can have trouble even maneuvering on flat ground. “It’s a challenge to make snakes move around efficiently,” Transeth says, adding that the company is hard at work developing a way for these robots to glide as gracefully as a real snake. And when pressed for the possible legal ramifications of dropping robots onto the moon, space-law expert Joanne Gabrynowicz responds: “Is the robot being operated by a government? A private company? Will it simply move through the tunnels? Or will it remove or extract material? A yes-or-no answer to any of these variables would substantially change the overall answer.”
Despite the difficulties, Transeth says snake robot technology is improving at a robust rate, and the robots’ potential to help with both terrestrial and extraterrestrial applications should not be underestimated. “We believe that we can design a robot that can hold on, roll itself up and then extend its body in order to reach new contact points.”
Will snake robots find a home on the moon? Only time will tell. But if they do, they may be the ones we thank someday for giving shelter to humans on the moon as well.