The sheer vastness of Australia and the crucial remote capabilities championed by its resources sector gave the nation the edge when NASA was deciding where to develop a moon rover for the Artemis space mission.
Its researchers and developers are so accustomed to working with remote-controlled, long-distance fleet management and artificial intelligence to navigate oil and gas exploration in rocky terrain that producing technology that can be controlled from earth looked like a no-brainer.
“Perth can be monitoring mine flights in the Pilbara which is, you know, 1500km, 1700km away. And to put that into context, the International Space Station is about 400km above earth,” says Leanne Cunnold, CEO of AROSE, an Australian consortium designing a prototype for the mission.
“Of course, the moon is a lot further but sure, you know, we have those capabilities.”
Space exploration isn’t the strictly one-country endeavour it once was.
The NASA space program in the US is cherry-picking the best of the best technology from nearly 30 contributing nations to give the Artemis moon mission its best chance for success.
It chose Australia as its strategic partner to work on the rover due to the nation’s proven expertise in remote operations.
AROSE is one of two Australian consortiums working on early-stage prototypes for an Australian-designed and built lunar rover for the Trailblazer program by the middle of 2024.
If it’s successful, the AROSE team – led by Fugro and Nova Systems – will then build, test, deploy and operate the moon rover for the Artemis lunar landing, expected to take place at the end of 2026, from a newly built Australian Space Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Control Complex (SpAARC) in Perth’s CBD.
The job of the moon rover will be to collect regolith – a sticky, abrasive and glass-hard shards of soil found on the moon’s surface – and transport it to NASA’s extraction facility on the moon.
“It will extract the oxygen and this will be used for supporting sustainable human presence on the moon and then to go to Mars and beyond,” Ms Cunnold tells AAP ahead of World Space Week, which runs from October 4-10.
But it’s no easy task, AROSE Director of Space Programs Newton Campbell adds.
“Lunar regolith is pretty nasty stuff. It’s not like digging up normal dirt here on Earth,” Dr Campbell said in a statement.
“Since the moon has no atmospheric or liquid erosion properties it’s much sharper than soil particulates here on earth.
“We’re just not used to dealing with that, even with what we deal with in the Pilbara.”
The physical properties of lunar soil are primarily the result of the mechanical disintegration of rock, caused by the steady bombardment of meteorites over billions of years.
Regolith is also composed of glass-like silica which forms a sharp “unforgiving” surface covered with a thin layer of electrically charged dust that sticks to any surface with which it comes in contact.
Being so closely involved in the space mission is exciting for Australia, and for the world.
Returning to the moon, to establish a sustainable presence with humans and robots working together, has the power to motivate future space scientists, engineers and technology specialists, Ms Cunnold says.
And there is as much to be gained down here on earth.
“There have been so many innovations that have come from space that positively impact our daily lives,” Ms Cunnold says.
“GPS, satellite imagery for fire detection, crop optimisation and weather forecasting, et cetera … so what we are learning in space, you know, has an impact on us here on Earth.”