The problem of resources in space
Space may be the final frontier, but we need a lot of resources to explore it. Prolonged exploration requires a safe base to meet the basic needs of survival as well as conduct scientific testing.
To take everything we need with us, and to establish it with human labour, is costly and involves risk.
In-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) is a sustainable way to explore space. Resources are collected and used during exploration missions for products, services or commercial purposes. Technology that collects and implements the resources that are already available on moon, planetary or asteroid surfaces in our solar system is an emerging field of research and development that is gaining significant momentum in the space industry.
Because our moon, and the area between Earth and the Moon are the most accessible, they are the most attractive areas for ISRU experimentation. The European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing a mission to demonstrate the feasibility of ISRU on the Moon. The mission aims to provide water and oxygen for human outposts, and hydrogen and oxygen fuels for space stations or similar spacecraft orbiting between Earth and the Moon.
PRO-ACT – robotic collaboration for ISRU
The Horizon 2020 EU-funded PRO-ACT project will develop and demonstrate a cooperation and manipulation capabilities between three robots for ISRU.
The project will test for conditions that are like on the moon, and will build on the results of other project outcomes from the PERASPERA project and its operational grants (OGs)
PRO-ACT will show how robot working agents, or RWA, can work together to achieve a common goal. The project will demonstrate the effectiveness of:
- cooperative goal decomposition
- collaborative mission planning and manipulation
- assembly of a supporting infrastructure.
The project is focused on three core goals:
- enabling human settlement on the moon by establishing the viability of ISRU plants
- partial assembly of a ‘mobile gantry’ which can provide 3D printed building materials for human habitats and can address the critical issue for lunar exploration of ‘dust mitigation’
- effectively integrate existing software and hardware from robotics as the building blocks of functional RWAs
In this way, we tackle two of the biggest obstacles to establishing a base of exploration on Earth’s moon, and in future other planets, moons or asteroids in our solar system.
The selected mission scenario links high priority scientific goals with the intentions of lunar resource utilization and human exploration scenarios providing an excellent basis for technology demonstration. The following cooperative scenarios are targeted by the RWAs: (i) fine scale surveying of areas prior to carry out construction work (ii) site clearing by grading stones and debris (iii) unloading equipment/construction elements from the lander(s) and transporting them to the assembly sites (iv) assembly of specific modular components of an ISRU plant (v) assisting partial assembly and mobility of cable driven gantry (vi) 3D printing of modular building elements from pseudo-regolith simulant (vii) sample assembly of printed elements (bricks) to construct sections of storage, habitation spaces or dust mitigation surfaces.
Following this scenario, the key robotic elements, namely the rover mobile rover IBIS, the six-legged walking robot Mantis and a mobile gantry are outlined according to the corresponding mission architecture. The ISRU plant is sized to be representative of a future lunar mission, with grasping points to assist robotic manipulation capabilities and considering the effects of reduced lunar gravity. The IBIS mobile robot has a heavy-duty manipulator with interchangeable end effectors, mobility on moderately uneven terrain, with long endurance. The Mantis hexapod provides the capability to move on challenging terrain, use of 2 legs as dual manipulators with limited payload. The mobile gantry is in a stowed configuration and required to be unloaded by the 2 robots. It can self-assemble into the final configuration with elementary assistance by the robots with passive mobility. The project aims to demonstrate the integration of common building blocks for robots that are composed to create functional and intelligent robotic agents. Apart from the lunar exploration mission, a transfer of the applied technologies to terrestrial applications will be evaluated.