Science & Technology

Microrobots to play key role on Mexico’s first Moon mission

By Ines Amarelo

Mexico City, Feb 8 (EFE).- Tiny robots that will land on the Moon in mid-2022 to study its surface thanks to an enormous effort by the National Automonous University of Mexico (UNAM) are the key elements in an ambitious Mexican plan to push forward with its own aerospace agenda.

Like the insects on which they are based, five small robots will arrive on the Moon in June 2022 after traveling the 384,000 kilometers (238,000 miles) from Earth as part of the Colmena Mission – Mexico’s first Moon mission – to study the lunar surface, an effort by both UNAM and 200 young people who participated in the project.

The idea arose five years ago as scientists analyzed “the process of transformation that is occurring in the space sector,” Dr. Gustavo Medina, the research chief and head of UNAM’s Nuclear Sciences Institute, told EFE on Tuesday.

He said that over the past few decades access to space has changed, given that some years ago very few countries could get off the planet but now almost all nations have begun creating their own space programs and this has opened a door “that now must be passed through.”

Mexico is one of those countries and so, in 2021, it moved forward with creating the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE), with 18 countries as members and which is now seeking to insert itself into space exploration.

Although it is not part of ALCE, the Colmena Mission is a UNAM project that looks to the future from the standpoint of innovation and emphasizing the possibilities of the university, one of the world’s outstanding centers of learning.

The protagonists of the mission – the five robots – each weigh 60 grams (2.1 ounces) and have a flat circular shape with two wheels and flexible solar panels on both faces. They will first try to survive on the Moon’s complicated surface and then begin inspecting the terrains to learn more about Earth’s still largely unknown satellite.

“Each opportunity brings its own problem, and here the problems are complex and don’t have simple solutions,” the researcher said, adding that developing space mining is also one of the things that is being factored into the mission.

Medina said that the microrobots, which will act autonomously and will move about using energy gathered by their solar panels, will undertake the complex task of investigating the lunar surface, which is covered by a dusty, rocky blanket called the regolith.

The regolith, in contrast to the sand and soil that one finds on Earth, does not erode to create spheroidal material and does not dissolve because there is no water there.

On the contrary, its fragments are all edges and points, and some of the particles of this material can be extremely small and fine.

Given this, perhaps the best option would be to send a larger robot with a morphology similar to a human being and constructed out of very resistant materials.

But it would take huge quantities of funding to ensure that such a device would have a long useful life on the Moon, and that is not necessary for a short mission like the one that’s planned, Medina said.

With that in mind, the Colmena Mission began taking form with the aim of being able – over time and as needed – to send hundreds, thousands or even millions of these little robots to the Moon so that they can investigate and reconnoiter.

Although chances are that some or all of the robots will fail or not be able to complete their assigned tasks, all the work on the mission so far indicates that they will still make scientific advances and, due to their relatively low unit cost, more missions could be staged in the future to continue the work they began, he said.

Years of work have gone into getting to this point, where just a few months remain before the rocket carrying the robots lifts off from Florida en route to the Moon.

“It’s been a long road to get here. More than 10 different conceptual models have been made and … they made many (prototypes) until they got to the definitive version. … There’s been a lot of stress and a lot of exhaustion,” Medina said, adding that the mission team had to create the so-called “catapult” that will hold and gently eject the robots, which until they are deployed will be arranged inside it as if they were crackers in a box.

The catapult is currently being inserted into the rocket and this week several of the project team members will travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the final part of the preparations and to “arm” the catapult, Medina said.

Later, testing will continue but the UNAM team’s work will be done and all they will need to do will be to wait for launch. There are no plans to return any the robots to Earth.

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