Australia set to blast off on its first moon mission

Astronaut driving a vehicle on the Moon

American astronaut Eugene A Cernan drives a Lunar Rover Vehicle on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Photo: NASA

Australia’s unique geography and world-leading expertise in robotics technology in harsh and remote climates make it an ideal candidate to put a rover on the moon, George Booth reports.

Australia’s space industry is abuzz with excitement after the Federal Government inked a deal with NASA to put an Australian-made rover on the moon.

The joint NASA-Australian Space Agency mission could see the rover fly to the moon as early as 2026. The semi-autonomous rover will collect lunar soil that contains oxygen in the form of oxides. NASA’s goal will be to extract oxygen from the soil – a “key step” toward establishing human life on the moon.

Professor Anna Moore is the Director of the ANU Institute for Space, which is committed to helping multidisciplinary space researchers at ANU and their innovations become a key part of Australia’s growing space industry. She says although Australia was always going to have to form a partnership in order to travel to the moon, joining NASA on this mission is a smart move.

“It means our space ambitions are much bigger now than they would be if we did it alone. And of course, Australia has always had a very good working relationship with NASA over many years, mostly on ground-based communications,” Moore says.

“It’s a trusted relationship and one that can get Australian research groups and industry very far; much further than they could get on their own.”

Australia’s best and brightest minds will come together to develop the rover, which will have decision-making capabilities and has been backed by $50 million in federal cash.

But what does it take to build a rover capable of operating with significant autonomy and withstanding extreme temperature swings, ranging from scorching hot to minus 150 degrees Celsius at night? And why has NASA identified Australia as the right candidate for the job?

According to Moore, it’s all to do with Australia’s “world-class” mining and resource extraction and analysis sector.

“Australia has world-leading expertise in developing cutting-edge autonomous robotics technology that is critical to the everyday operations of our nation’s mining sector,” she says.

“In addition, it also leads the world in soil extraction and sample analysis techniques dating back to the Apollo era. This makes Australian industry and the research sector more than capable of developing a machine that can function successfully on the moon.

“So it seems really sensible for Australia to step into that arena with the technology and know-how it already has.”

Australia also has vital experience developing autonomous machines capable of operating in remote and desolate climates, as Dr Brad Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics explains.

“Australia is very good at working in harsh environments. We have the longest autonomous train in the Pilbara and we’re used to carrying out remote operations in the middle of the outback. So in essence, if you can do it in Australia, you can probably do it on the moon,” he says.

But developing a machine for such extreme conditions does not come without its challenges.

“You’re not going to be able to sit there and drive it; the whole point of the rover doing its job and analysing those samples is to do so without the need for a lot of interference from the ground or on the moon. There are too many tasks to be doing up there so you can’t have someone doing all of these tasks,” Tucker says.

“The more autonomous and robotic you can make these things, the more efficient the science will be.”

In an era where access to space is cheaper than ever before and technology has advanced leaps and bounds since the Apollo missions, Moore says the old idea of living on and travelling to the moon is suddenly becoming much more realistic.

According to Moore, the moon could help launch human existence on other planets, such as Mars.

“The moon is relatively close to the Earth and it has a lot of great resources that we can test to figure out whether we can live there sustainably. If we can’t make it work on the moon then it’s going to be quite difficult to live sustainably elsewhere.

“And of course whoever manages to do it first will reap the benefits.”

If Australia can achieve its new mission, Tucker says the country will become only the fourth nation in the world to put a rover on the moon and make it function successfully. This would pave the way for Australia to join a small and very exclusive club, making it the envy of much of the world.

“Only three countries have ever gotten their rovers to successfully work on the moon: the US, Russia and China. India is the only other country to have sent a rover to the moon but it didn’t work.

“If Australia is successful, it would be a big statement internationally and at the same time position Australian researchers and technology firms well to continue to work on and make a big impact on future space projects.”

The Australian Government plans to triple the nation’s space sector by 2030, injecting $12 billion into the economy and creating up to 20,000 jobs. The investment is setting Australia up to be a serious contender in the space sector globally.

“This is why it’s so important for Australia to build this rover, because if you can do that then you have the capability to develop different kinds of unique and critical space infrastructure required to assist with everyday operations,” Tucker says.

And as Moore points out, the mission to the moon will also lead to major benefits back on Earth.

“The reality is the benefits of doing business in space are much more impactful on the ground. For example, GPS navigation, bushfire detection, climate change data and people migration all massively depend on assets that are in space.” 

Which leaves only one question. How far could this lead? With our unique expertise and knowledge, this mission could be not just Australia’s first step on the moon, but also a leap into the solar system.

Learn more about how ANU is boosting Australia’s space capabilities at ANU InSpace.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021-22 edition of ANU Reporter.

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