In mid-2021, UNAM will carry out the COLMENA mission, which is to put nine micro-rovers on the surface of the Moon. “This mission will position Mexico at a new technological stage of scientific exploration and commercial exploitation, which will probably take place on asteroids and moons”, said project leader Gustavo Medina Tanco.
Medina Tanco, a researcher from the Institute of Nuclear Sciences (ICN), explained that the rovers, which look like cogs, are eight centimeters wide by four high and will move around at random on the lunar surface. They will navigate autonomously until finding each other, form a swarm, make an electrical connection and assemble the biggest solar panel possible.
This mission has been entirely developed at the ICN Space Instrumentation Laboratory (LINX), with the support of the Mexican Space Agency (AEM), the National Science and Technology Council (CONACyT), Hidalgo state government, and various technology companies with a strong socially commitment to Mexico’s scientific, technological, and economic development.
Private US company Astrobotic will be in charge of the 2021 launch, which will also carry experiments from other countries and NASA.
COLMENA’s payload includes the nine robots, as well as a telecommunications, telemetry, and launch module, with a total mass of 500 grams.
Its low total mass, together with the rigors of blast-off and survival on the lunar surface posed a unique technological challenge, according to Gustavo.
UNAM students from degree programs linked to areas such as engineering, physics, mathematics, actuarial science, psychology, art, and design worked in a multidisciplinary environment to take part in COLMENA’s design, construction, and testing. “This mission is also an opportunity to train human resources in the space sector”, said the project leader, who has 50 team members in his laboratory, from high school to PhD students.
Dust Measurements and the Telecommunications Module
As a rule, asteroids and moons don’t have their own atmospheres or magnetic fields, and their surfaces are exposed to bombardments of meteorites and high-energy particles from the solar wind.
“Consequently, these celestial bodies have a layer of rigolith, a dust that is very fine, abrasive, radioactive, and electrostatically charged, which is extremely damaging to all technology we attempt to deploy in that environment, especially at ground level”, said Gustavo.
LINX’s strategy is to develop swarms of very small robots that can work together.
LINX’s strategy is to develop swarms of very small robots that con work together to assemble structures or carry out group tasks, making use of the properties of complex systems and their emergent properties.
The rovers will take measurements of rigolith dust, which will hover above the robots due to dusty plasma processes that are energized by the solar wind.