Gangs of Mining Robots Could Do the Dirty Work for Astronauts on the Moon

A team of researchers is developing a swarm of robots for space mining projects. The team, which received $500,000 in funding from NASA, envisions the robots will be able to mine, excavate, and even construct simple structures on the surface of the Moon.

While the robots, which will be built and trained on Earth, will initially need to receive instructions from operators on our homeworld, the team hopes they will eventually be able to function autonomously.

The robots will use a learning model adapted by Jekan Thanga, University of Arizona (UA) associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, called the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System (HEART). HEART will not only train the robots to perform mechanical tasks like mining and construction, but will also gradually teach them to collaborate.

The UA team says that the robots won't take the place of humans on manned space missions, but will free up time for astronauts allowing them to focus on critical mission elements.

"In a sense, we're like farmers. We're breeding talent out of these creatures, or a whole family of creatures, to do certain tasks," Thanga said. "The idea is to have the robots build, set things up and do all the dirty, boring, dangerous stuff, so the astronauts can do the more interesting stuff."

Moon Robots
Researchers check out a robot which could be deployed in vast numbers to mine resources on the Moon. The University of Arizona team hopes that the robots could one day do the "dirty work" for astronomers. Chris Richards/University of Arizona./University of Arizona

NASA is already planning more manned missions to the Moon, most significantly the Artemis Mission that will see a man and woman of color walk on the lunar surface for the first time. Future lunar missions will look to establish a base of operations on the Moon's surface, which will ultimately lead to the manned exploration of Mars.

The key watchword in this new era of space exploration has become sustainability. Transporting materials into space isn't cheap and it takes up valuable room and weight allocations on rocket journeys. That means there is a natural advantage to collecting any raw materials that you can on the surface of the body you are looking to explore.

"It's really exciting to be at the forefront of a new field," Moe Momayez, interim head of UA's Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, said in a press release. "I remember watching TV shows as a kid, like Space: 1999, which is all about bases on the moon. Here we are in 2021, and we're talking about colonizing the moon."

In one of the most well-supported theories of how the Moon formed, scientists suggest a massive collision with another body ripped material away from the Earth. This material eventually cooled and formed our natural satellite, the Moon. This suggests that the Moon and the Earth have very similar chemical compositions.

That means that elements found here on earth should also be available to mine from the Moon. This includes Earth metals that are used in a range of technologies such as smartphones, and precious metals like silver and gold. The robot swarm could also mine helium-3, an isotope of helium that could be used to fuel further journeys, making the Moon an ideal refueling station for manned Mars exploration.

Because mining on Earth takes a lot of water, something that likely won't be available on the Moon, the robots will have to use new mining procedures to drill on the lunar surface.

"To break rocks, we use a lot of water, and that's something we won't have on the moon," Momayez said. "So, we need new processes, new techniques. The most efficient way to break rocks on Earth is through blasting, and nobody has ever set off a blast on the moon."

Moon Base
A 3D illustration of what a lunar base of operations could look like. Such a set-up on the lunar surface could benefit from raw materials collected by a swarm of mining robots. iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty