EU project to explore lunar lava caves


Enlarge imageThe CAD visualization shows the mission scenario on the skylight of a lava cave on the moon with the three robot systems SherpaTT (top left), Coyote III (bottom left) and LUVMI (right).
(Image: DFKI GmbH, graphic: Finn Lichtenberg)

March 25, 2021 – Water, shelter, stable temperatures: The lava caves on the moon are of great interest when it comes to suitable locations for long-term lunar missions. In order to investigate their potential for space travel, teams of robots are to penetrate the caves in the future. A European consortium headed by DFKI is researching in the CoRob-X project how a team of several robots can abseil themselves largely autonomously and explore the tunnels. The goal is a field test in the Canary Islands, in which the systems examine a lava cave together and use the new technologies from European space research. The EU is funding the project with around three million euros. Teamwork pays off. This finding also applies in the world of robotics: While current space missions still rely on loners like the NASA rover Perseverance, in the future teams of autonomous robots should explore the surfaces of the moon and Mars ?? and also penetrate underground. Because especially extreme environments such as the craters or lava caves of the moon are of interest for long-term missions? For example, they can protect against radiation, meteorites and temperature fluctuations and offer water ice as a resource. However, before a manned mission into the depths of the satellite is worthwhile, these promising places are to be examined by autonomous robots. The only question is: How do the systems get in and out of such lava caves?

The solution offers an area of ​​Artificial Intelligence (AI) that is becoming an increasingly important component in the planning of future space missions: collaborative autonomous robotics. Compared to manned flights, exploration by intelligent robots not only saves effort and costs, but also risks for humans. The ability to cooperate and make decisions is the decisive advantage for implementing complex mission scenarios such as exploring caves. For this reason, the European Commission is funding research into cooperative robots for extreme environments as part of the Horizon 2020 funding program. The CoRob-X project, coordinated by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), aims to implement such a scenario in an analogue mission on earth, and is funded for two years with around three million euros .

DFKI GmbH / Annemarie Popp

Enlarge imageThe micro-rover Coyote III drives on the artificial moon crater in the space exploration hall of the DFKI Robotics Innovation Center in Bremen.
(Image: DFKI GmbH / Annemarie Popp)

Three robots, one team
Behind the long title ?? Cooperative Robots for Extreme Environments ?? This is one of the final projects of the Strategic Research Cluster (SRC) “Space Robotics Technologies”, which comprises several research projects for European space travel funded under the H2020 program. The focus of the CoRob-X project, which officially started on March 1, 2021, is accordingly on testing and validating the technologies that were developed in the SRC and are to be used in European space missions. The exploration of lava caves is a realistic scenario, as these caves on the moon represent a key for long-term missions or even human habitats. For this reason, the ?? CoRob-X ?? aims to carry out such an exploration using three autonomous robotic systems in a field test in the Canary Islands and to prove its feasibility with the help of SRC technologies. Two systems from the Robotics Innovation Center (RIC) from DFKI in Bremen and a robot from the Belgian company Space Applications Services NV / SA are used. Unlike those rovers that are already in use in space, these systems can make their own decisions thanks to artificial intelligence, which has many advantages over remote control by humans on earth: Autonomous space robots can react immediately to their environment, and new data to theirs Record mission planning and correct errors faster. After all, working in a team is crucial in order to be able to investigate an extreme environment such as a lava cave? whether on the moon or the volcanic Canaries.

DFKI GmbH / Florian Cordes

Enlarge imageIn field tests in the US state of Utah, the space exploration systems SherpaTT (front) and Coyote III (rear) were tested in a Mars-like environment
(Image: DFKI GmbH / Florian Cordes)

Abseil down, explore, transmit sensor data
For this purpose, an autonomous exploration robot is to be lowered into such a cave and brought back up again. The scenario envisages that the three autonomous rovers ?? SherpaTT and Coyote from DFKI and robot LUVMI from Space Applications Services from Belgium ?? together examine the entrance of a cave and through a sensor cube, the LUVMI, into the so-called ?? Skylight ?? throws, collect first information and exchange. With the help of this data, the systems determine a suitable point at which the robust SherpaTT rover can lower the compact coyote using a cable pull. Once on the ground, the agile robot decouples itself from the rope and docking mechanism, explores the cave and then returns to the docking station to transmit the data and be carried up by SherpaTT. The field test for the validation of the SRC technologies is planned for the beginning of 2023. Until then, the mission details and requirements must be defined, the technologies implemented on the systems and any security issues taken into account. At the same time, the company GMV Aerospace and Defense SA and the Santa Bárbara Foundation are carrying out another field test in a mine in northern Spain, in which the same technologies for exploring shafts are being tested. A rover and a drone from the Spanish GMV are used for this purpose. The Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux Observations Spatiales (LATMOS) and Magellium SAS from France, the University of Malaga, Sintef AS from Norway and Airbus Defense and Space GmbH from Germany.

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