US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — A laser beam penetrating through darkness can power a robot that explores the most tantalizing places in our solar system – the constantly shaded craters around the poles of the moon, which are believed to be rich in water ice and other valuable materials.
The ESA‘s Detection and Preparation program has funded the development of a laser system that provides power to the rover up to 15 km away while exploring one of these dark craters.
In the highest lunar latitudes, the sun remains low on the horizon throughout the year, casting long shadows. Deep craters in these latitudes are mired in constant shadow, potentially for billions of years. Data from NASA‘s Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter, Indian Chandrayaan-1 and ESA SMART-1, show that these “permanently shaded areas” are rich in hydrogen, suggesting water ice can be found there.
Along with scientific interest, this ice will be valuable to lunar colonists as a source of drinking water, oxygen for breathing, and also as a source of hydrogen rocket fuel. But to know for sure, you need to go to these darkened craters and drill.
Any rover exploring shaded areas will have to do without solar energy, while it will struggle with temperatures comparable to the surface of Pluto, down to –240 ° C – this is only 30 degrees above absolute zero.
“The standard offer for this situation is to equip the rover with nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric generators,” commented ESA Robot Engineer Michelle Van Winnendahl. “But this creates problems and difficulties, and also increases the cost of controlling the temperature regime – the rover can become so hot that the search and analysis of ice samples actually becomes impractical.”
“As an alternative, this study examined the use of a laser power system. “It provides uninterrupted operation of unmanned aerial vehicles and their flights for several hours.”
The contract for the 10-month PHILIP project “Powering Rovers with High-Intensity Laser Induction on the Planets” was concluded between ESA and the Italian company Leonardo and the Romanian National Institute of Research and Development in Optoelectronics, which developed a complete project for a research mission with laser power.
This included the selection of a landing site for the mission, in a region almost constantly lit by the sun between the craters of the South Pole De Gerlach and Shackleton. This ship will have a 500-watt solar-powered infrared laser that it will hold a 250 kg rover when it enters shaded areas.
The rover will convert this laser beam into electrical energy using a modified version of a standard solar panel, with photodiodes on the sides of the panel holding it on the laser to the nearest centimeter.
During the study, routes were determined that were supposed to lead the rover down a relatively gentle slope of 10 degrees, keeping it in direct line of sight of the landing module. The laser beam could be used as a two-way communication line with a modulating reflector mounted on the second of the solar panels of the rover, sending signal pulses in the form of reflected light back to the landing module.
Guided by the requirements of the project, ESA previously conducted field trials at night on the moon-like island of Tenerife to simulate the rover in constant shadow.
Michelle adds: “With the completion of the PHILIP project, we are one step closer to connecting rovers to lasers to study the darker parts of the moon. We are at a stage where prototyping and testing can begin, carried out by subsequent ESA technology programs.”
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