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Space exploration: Lunar rovers & a piece of Moon in Luxembourg

Discover more about the Moon map photo below and get a taste of some of the Luxembourg research endeavours the FNR supports that are helping advance society's reach into space.

The story behind the image: Understanding where there is light and where there is darkness

This is a map highlighting light hitting the Moon’s North Pole. Why is such a map of interest for scientists working on lunar rovers?

Before humanity can begin planning lunar resources exploration, good maps are an essential step. Rovers and instruments that could explore the Moon will probably rely on solar power and batteries. Maps like this one highlight which areas receive a lot of light – and which ones are dark.

Treasure in the risky darkness

Even in places near the poles that receive some sunlight, it is necessary to understand just how much sunlight they receive – a rover that is charged by the Sun should not spend too much time in the dark, as it cannot recharge its batteries there and could become stuck.

Why not just avoid dark areas? Permanently lit and permanently dark places at the lunar poles are ideal places for exploration and lunar resource development. The rovers will have to venture into the dark areas, because only these places may contain water ice – essential for any hope of life support on the Moon.

LunaLab: A piece of Moon in Luxembourg

A strong contrast between light and shadow, the cratered surface is grainy and dusty. Rolling with movement not unlike a tank, a rover appears at the edge of the crater. What sounds like the Moon is in fact an 80 m2 lab, with 20 tonnes of basalt gravel simulating the bedrock of the Moon. Equipped with sensors throughout, students and researchers can monitor their AI algorithms and robots’ movements down to the millimetre.

The LunaLab, opened in the framework of the University’s Interdisciplinary Space Masters, is one of the few facilities across the globe that simulates lunar conditions.

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A rover with a robotic arm at the LunaLab (photo by Philippe Ludivig - winner in the category ‘Places and Tools’ in the 2021 FNR Science Image Competition)

“New companies are focussing on new activities where robotics are essential – such as space exploration. In the LunaLab, we focus on simulating the visual appearance of the Moon, so we can test AI algorithms for the localisation, mapping, trajectory planning and control – basically autonomous navigation of the robots” – Prof Miguel Olivares-Mendez

Focus on autonomous spacecrafts

Prof Miguel Olivares-Mendez, who heads up the LunaLab, works on developing AI algorithms on autonomous navigation in different research activities related to space with his 15-member strong research group SpaceR.

This includes orbital robotics - spacecrafts or satellites that can perform certain tasks in space autonomously, semi-autonomously, or tele-operated - planetary robotics and aerial robotics.

Planetary robotics include landers, rovers, hoppers (a type of spacecraft) and other mobile systems to explore celestial bodies and to find, identify, extract and collect space resources for their utilisation in Space (ISRU).

Tools for space robotics

Concrete examples of orbital robotics include satellite and spacecrafts equipped with robotics tools, such as robotic arms or robotic docking systems for on-orbit servicing like refuelling, maintenance, re/de-orbiting, etc, with collaborative and non-collaborative targets. Both together are defined as Space Robotics.

Together with Prof Gilbert Fridgen (PayPal-FNR PEARL Chair), Miguel embarks on a new, FNR-supported space research project in Summer 2021, where the scientists will develop space robots that follow a given governance (RegTech) and make autonomous economic decisions (FinTech) to jointly create systems where multiple robots collaborate on tasks.

This kind of dynamic collaboration between space robots could lower market barriers in the space sector and transform the whole industry.

Teaching a lunar rover to navigate the Moon alone

A big international buzz around space resources exploration and Luxembourg began in 2017: Luxembourg passed a legal framework for space resources utilisation and launched the initiative to attract companies in the space sector. In 2020, the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) was opened and the same year space robotics became part of Luxembourg’s National Research Priorities.

Luxembourg has been making an early mark in the space resources exploration endeavour, with several research projects tackling what is by many considered a kind of last frontier.

For companies to take the leap into space resources-related endeavours, they will need to rely on the expertise of scientists to help them achieve their vision – Luxembourg-born Philippe Ludivig is one of these scientists.

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Philippe Ludivig with a lunar rover at the ispace Moon testing facility in Luxembourg

Time is everything

In space exploration, time is everything. The time a lunar rover will have to fulfil its mission is limited and, ideally, no time should be wasted – a lunar rover should figure out how to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

“Any autonomy you can give your robot increases the amount of science you can get done in the mission lifetime” – Philippe Ludivig

Philippe works on creating a navigation system for a small lunar rover: teaching it to navigate around on the Moon’s surface, while creating a map, and locating itself on this map, in the process.

Creating a map piece by piece

In the research domain, this is known as ‘SLAM’ – ‘Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping’. It essentially allows the rover to understand its environment, which is the first step needed to take autonomous decisions within this environment.

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A lunar rover in a virtual Moon environment (photo by Philippe Ludivig)

The system Philippe is developing has the lunar rover scanning one area at a time, shown as a point cloud – a 3D map of the surface. Piece by piece, the rover creates a map. The computer scientist works both with lunar rovers at the ispace Moon testing facility in Luxembourg, as well as testing his research on rovers in the LunaLab at the University of Luxembourg’s SnT.

By 2023 this novel navigation system should be in operation, playing a key role in ispace’s ambitious programme for polar ice exploration.

”It’s nice when you go home in the evening, you can look at the Moon and say ‘that’s where my research is going!” – Philippe Ludivig

Philippe conducts his research in the framework of a collaborative project between the University of Luxembourg’s SnT and Japanese lunar exploration company ispace. The FNR has special funding programme (Industrial Fellowships and BRIDGES) to enable researchers in Luxembourg to work with companies. Philippe’s project is one of four FNR-funded collaborations between ispace and researchers.

Get the LetzSCIENCE app in the App/Play store and see a lunar rover drive around on the Moon - around you in augmented reality.

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