As Robots and Humans Race to the Moon, Architects Plan Robotic Construction of First Lunar Settlement
By Kevin Holden Platt
Designers and researchers at the Pritzker Prize-winning studio, Foster + Partners, say advances across the spheres of computational intelligence and robotics are pushing forward breakthroughs in robotically constructing what could become the core of a permanent human outpost on the Moon.
Three lightweight modules that have been designed to accommodate astronauts, along with two dozen robots that will build other elements of the base, will be rocketed to a crater on the south pole of the Moon. These modules will provide the inner sanctum of a pressurized, oxygen-rich haven for a new generation of human explorers, says Samuel Wilkinson, an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence at Foster + Partners.
Yet the inflatable modules, though partially made of bulletproof Kevlar, will not protect against high-energy particles emitted by the sun, or by black holes and supernovas scattered across the universe. While the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere provide a powerful shield against these cosmic bullets, Wilkinson explains, that on the Moon an artificial shield must be integrated into the architectural design of a safe sanctuary. His team at Foster has developed a design that shields each module inside a dome sculpted of moon dust, applied incrementally in five-millimeter layers and then microwaved into a crystalline material.
This process, carried out by intelligent robots smaller than NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover and outfitted with blades to excavate moon dust or sintering technology to melt and mold regolith into life-preserving domes, will be completed before the first team of astronauts touches down, says Josef Musil, co-designer of the lunar outpost at Foster.
In a study conducted with the Foster + Partners team, Laurent Pambaguian, a European Space Agency official at ESA's sprawling space technology center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, stated: "Ever since the Apollo missions in the late sixties, the idea of colonizing the moon… has been the focus of many research projects."
Pambaguian says in an interview that the design by the "ESA team that included Foster + Partners answers many of the requirements for keeping the astronauts protected from the harsh lunar environment," and adds that it marks a major advance toward "establishing a permanent astronaut base on the Moon."
Since the beginning of 2017, a whirlwind of new spaceflight missions outlined by NASA and by dynamic independent players has spiraled into a new race to the Moon.
While the White House recently instructed NASA to speed up the countdown to sending astronauts aboard the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule on a circumlunar mission, Elon Musk's SpaceX announced it could overtake NASA by rocketing two private explorers around the Moon by the end of 2018.
SpaceX is also slated to launch a robot to the Moon later this year developed by an Israeli space-tech outfit, SpaceIL, which is competing with four other teams - stretching from Japan to India to the US - to land a robot equipped with a video camera that can beam images back from the Moon's alien terrain.
This race of robots - sparked by the $30-million Google Lunar XPRIZE - is a precursor to the expanding human settlement in the 2020s on the Moon's perpetually sunlit south pole envisioned by the European Space Agency.
Over the past year, ESA's top leaders have been using Foster's renderings of cyborg-constructed habitats to promote their conceptual designs for a Moon Village, a freewheeling lunar cosmopolis open to explorers around the world to collectively map out the celestial orb's future.
Advances in robotically building the foundations of this first settlement are laying the groundwork for space agencies worldwide to coordinate exploration strategies, says Scott Hovland, Head of the International Space Station Technology Unit at ESA.
Samuel Wilkinson says that as astronauts, scientists and perhaps even architects begin to inhabit Foster's first-generation habitats clustered around the Moon Village, the studio will continuously gather feedback to design evolving generations of structures optimally adapted to the lunar environment. A similar process of high-speed evolution, he adds, will guide the development of increasingly intelligent robots deployed to build this first extraterrestrial colony.
Last updated: March 20, 2017