In photos: 'Night robots' designed to probe moon craters tested by European Space Agency

The ESA logo sits proudly on the front of the robot (ESA)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The European Space Agency (ESA) has tested the capability of two robots tailored to probe the darkest crevices of the Moon.

As part of a project known as Lucid, scientists from the ESA's Planetary Robotics Laboratory teamed up with Spanish engineers to test the robots in Tenerife, gauging the capacity of their leading-edge sensors for future missions in darkness.

The testing took place in a rocky area called Las Minas de San Jose, part of the Teide National Park, which is overlooked by the Mount Teide volcano. The ESA says this area was chosen because it simulates a "Moon-like area."

The agency says the two droids - the Heavy Duty Planetary Rover, or HDPR, and the Rover Autonomy Testbed, or RAT -  were tested over a period of nine days.

Although the early part of the programme focused on daylight exploration, the robots were tested extensively at night during the latter part of the testing period, guided only by the moonlight. The equipment which was tested inclues stereo cameras with special night lamps; 'time of flight' ranging cameras and 'laser-radar' lidar sensors.

Until now, planetary rovers have always been operated during local daylight hours, as lighting on the Moon can be extremely limited, particularly in the polar regions. Levels of illumination can change dramatically, and some areas - such as craters - never see the light of the Sun. 

It is hoped that the Tenerife research will pave the way for exploratory missions to take place at night, which could potentially unlock frozen materials.

ESA robotics engineer Martin Azkarate said: “Until now, planetary rovers have always been operated during local daylight. But for proposed missions to the polar regions of the Moon, lighting conditions will be more difficult.

“Their high latitude means the Sun stays low on the horizon, casting long shadows, and deep craters stay mired in permanent shadow – potentially storing scientifically interesting water ice and other frozen volatiles.

"With Lucid, we’re seeking to find out the best ways of navigating the lunar surface in varied illumination and terrain, analysing different sensors and software tools."