Will Astronauts Follow in the Footsteps of Caveman Ancestors?

Le Moustier Neanderthals (Charles R. Knight, 1920)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As their name implies, cavemen and their families lived in caves to protect themselves from the dangers of weather, wild animals and alien monoliths that might suddenly appear on the savannah.

As humanity prepares to take its next evolutionary step — the permanent settlement of the moon and Mars — it looks like it will be heading back to the caves. Or, more accurately, lava tubes that will protect astronauts from dangers of radiation and solar storms.

Ah oui. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose….

Holes called skylights that could be openings to lava tubes have been spotted on the moon and Mars. ESA has selected five proposals from European and Canadian organizations focused on how to explore lunar openings to see if they are suitable for future human habitation.

Below are ESA’s summaries of and links to the five selected proposals. You can also read a longer story abut ESA’s plans here.

Skylight: A Tethered Micro-rover for Safe Semi-autonomous Exploration of Lava Tubes

Credit: German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence

German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI)
 Kaiserslautern, Germany

Carried out by the Robotics Innovation Center of the DFKI together with the Robotics Group of the University of Bremen, this investigation aims to find an overall solution to access and map a lunar lava tube with a semi-autonomous rover. The concept involves entering a lava tube using a tether system that also provides communication and energy. When the bottom is reached, the tether spool is deployed and serves as a recharging station and communications relay for the battery-operated rover. This study will further improve on existing results from previous projects, where parts of the proposed approach were evaluated, for example by mapping a lava tube in Tenerife.

Rover-based System for Scouting and Mapping Lava Tubes from the Moon’s Surface Using Gravimetric Surveying

Credit; Canadensys

Canadensys Aerospace
Bolton, Ont.

Photographs of some lunar pit craters clearly show a cavern beneath the surface. This has raised the exciting possibility that at least some lunar pits are ‘skylights’ into extensive lava tubes, however there are also geologically plausible mechanisms for the existence of much smaller, more localised voids that are less useful to explore. This project proposes to first scout out prospective lunar pits using a small, inexpensive lunar-surface rover mission that would measure the gravitational field around pits to search for the presence of lava tubes. This information would be used to plan a more advanced mission that can enter tubes via pits.

Hopping Rovers for Lunar Exploration

Credit; University of Manchester

University of Manchester
Manchester, UK

Traditional planetary exploration missions involve a single rover platform with wheels that can move across moderately uneven terrain. More extreme rocky surfaces are challenging, and the risk of the lone rover becoming lodged or toppling is high. Inspired by biology, this study will investigate a network of low-cost, low-mass agile hopping rovers that can vault and bounce in complex terrain. Each rover would be able to operate independently while also communicating with nearby rovers to share navigation and mapping data, using a range of complementary sensing packages, which could be deployed across the rover network.

Robotic Crane for Wireless Power and Data Transmission Between Surface and Cave

Credit: University of Oviedo

University of Oviedo
Oviedo, Spain

Powering rovers inside lunar caves can be challenging, as they are not exposed to the sunlight that is traditionally used as a power source. This study will investigate a system that would involve a unit on the Moon’s surface equipped with a solar panel large enough to supply energy to itself as well as to charge the batteries of robots operating inside the cave. The surface unit would send power wirelessly to the robots in the cave using a crane that goes into the cave and deploys a ‘charging head’.

Descent and Exploration in Deep Autonomy of Lava Underground Structures

Credit: University of Würzburg

University of Würzburg
Würzburg, Germany

This mission concept aims to explore and characterise the entrance and initial part of lunar lava tubes using a compact, tightly integrated spherical robotic device, with a complementary payload set and autonomous capabilities. It specifically addresses the identification and characterisation of potential resources for future ESA exploration missions, the local environment of the subsurface and its geological and compositional structure. The sphere will house laser scanners, cameras and supporting equipment, and will be lowered into the skylight to explore the entrance, associated caverns and pipes. Lidar systems will produce 3D models of the environment; this will be the primary exploration toolset within the sphere.