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To the moon and beyond: The robots that are blazing a trail for human space exploration

Motiv Space Systems is designing specialist robotic equipment for the next generation of commercial space exploration, and the extreme off-world environments that astronauts face.


The Mars helicopter weighs just under four pounds and will be strapped to the Perseverance rover’s underside during launch and landing.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2023, NASA will embark on an ambitious mission to find out whether it’s possible to establish a long-term presence on the moon. Cited as the first step in the next era of human exploration, it is hoped that Project Artemis will lay the foundations for a new generation of commercial spaceflight – one that will eventually see astronauts sent to Mars. But alongside those astronauts there are going to be many robots of all shapes and sizes.

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Motiv Space Systems is one of the companies that hopes to pave the way for this new era of extraplanetary exploration. Established in 2014, and located just a few miles from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), much of Motiv’s staff started their careers at JPL or in other divisions at NASA.

SEE:  NASA to build lunar 4G network  (TechRepublic)  

Despite being a small company, one of Motiv’s biggest programmes has involved working with NASA on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover – specifically, designing the robotic arm that will allow the multi-billion dollar rover to collect samples from the Martian surface when it touches down in February 2021. From these samples, scientists hope to discover whether life can – or has ever – existed on the Martian surface.

Work on the Perseverance project was a multi-year activity, with Motiv working side by side with JPL to design and build the robotic arm, perform R&D, analytical elements and testing, and then helping to integrate it into the rover itself.

“Now that’s in cruise – we’re just a few months from landing on Mars and we’re really excited about that,” Tom McCarthy, VP businesses development at Motiv Space Systems, tells TechRepublic.

“That type of technique has been done for comets and asteroids, but to actually go and land, and pick up samples and then go through all of the trials and tribulates of getting those samples back safely to Earth is quite an undertaking, yet something that’s very, very exciting.”

Designing robotics for space exploration poses a unique set of challenges for engineers. For one, extreme swings in temperature in outer space and on extraplanetary bodies make material selection a critical design consideration, particularly as many traditional electronics can’t operate in cryogenic temperatures.

This has been a primary focus for another of Motiv’s work under NASA’s Artemis programme, which aims to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon by the end of the decade. Motiv’s contributions lie within some of the precursor missions, which will see robotic landers sent to the moon to carry out experiments ahead of any astronauts’ arrival.

Specifically, the Pasadena company is developing technology for the lander capable of withstanding the extreme temperature swings on the lunar surface, which range from nearly 130C during the day to as low as minus -180C at night. The technology is called the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm – or ‘COLDArm’ – and involves using a mechanical solution for operating without lubricants as well as electronics that work in cryogenic temperatures.

“There are not many space components that can survive, much less operate throughout the cold lunar night,” McCarthy explains.

“What makes the design for the COLDArm unique is not just that the robotic arm will be capable of operating at -180°C (as compared to standard space component minimum temperatures of -55C), but to do so without energy-consuming heaters typical on space systems.

“There are families of electronics that actually work in cryogenic temperatures. The key is to identify those, and make sure those components make up a system that will be reliable at those extreme temperatures.” 

For the early Artemis missions, robots will only have to survive a few lunar days and therefore only a few large thermal swings. However, the ambition is for long-term human habitation, which brings its own set of technological requirements for the astronauts heading there in the next 10 years.

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“I think robotics will play a huge role ensuring safety and sustainability for human exploration in those destinations,” says McCarthy.

“You want to maximize the exploration time of the human, and you want to minimize the burden or maintenance task of the human, and so you have the robots perform those for you,” McCarthy explains. 

Robots will also have an important role to play in establishing habitable environments for humans on the moon, as well as seeking out resources – such as water ice – than can be tapped by human explorers.

“I think that in many cases you’ll need to have robots kind of lead the way, to make sure that there’s a safe environment for humans who want to maintain a presence there,” says McCarthy.

“There will be an infrastructure needing to be built, and I don’t think of humans using the picks and shovels to build the infrastructure – I think [it will be] robots using them.”

Taking materials that can be used for building off-world habitats carries considerable physical and logistical challenges, namely that the larger the payload you want to take into orbit, the larger the rocket required.

This is why scientists are beginning to explore modularity as a way of taking materials into orbit piece by piece and constructing them on arrival.

SEE: Cleaning up space debris around our home planet (TechRepublic)  

“There’s a lot of attention being paid by a variety of government entities that see that, if you can build systems on orbit, you can bring pieces up as opposed to completely build systems that are folded into a fairing of a rocket,” says McCarthy.

Motiv is already actively exploring this area with another of its solutions, the xLink. Created by the same team that developed the Robotic Arm for NASA/JPL’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, the xLink is a robotic arm that takes a building block-like approach to its design so that it can be customized and scaled according to its use case, from servicing satellites on-orbit and extending their mission life by upgrading them with new capabilities, to collecting samples from rovers traversing new planets.

The xLink is eventually destined for commercial use, although its first planned mission is aboard NASA’s OSAM-2 (On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing) spacecraft. Expected to launch no earlier than 2022, the OSAM-2 spacecraft will use the xLink to position 3D-printing elements that will manufacture a 60-foot-plus solar array on-orbit, which scientists hope will eventually generate up to five times the power of traditional solar panels on similarly sized spacecraft.

“There is no rocket that, by itself, could launch a solution that could fit that bill. But, if you could take the pieces with you and assemble them in orbit, and in this kind of modular fashion, now you have this system that is expandable,” says McCarthy.

“That’s an area that xLink can be scaled to meet the need, and become a very powerful tool in the development of those types of systems.”

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