The quest to return humans to the Moon mobilizes NASA and numerous companies, emphasizing the need for sophisticated technological solutions and artificial intelligence applications.

A new era of lunar exploration looms. NASA‘s announcement of a planned human return to the Moon by 2026follows the pioneering 1969 mission. Additionally, Intuitive Machines is set to launch the IM-1 mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on February 14, 2024. Success would signify the first U.S. landing since 1972 and the debut of a commercial spacecraft on the lunar surface.

A key NASA ambition includes landing the first woman on the Moon as part of the Artemis mission.

More than half a century after the last manned Moon landing, a 2026 return is on the horizon, promising significant advancements in lunar exploration with wide-ranging economic, technological, and employment impacts.
Achieving mission objectives – and enabling lunar habitation – relies on the development of innovative technological solutions in various sectors, with artificial intelligence playing a crucial role.
The lunar mission serves as a vital precursor to Mars exploration, highlighting the importance of mastering lunar and space experimentation.

Why the Moon again

NASA underscores returning to the Moon for scientific exploration, economic gains, and inspiring future explorers. The lunar experience will facilitate “the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars,” equipping humanity with the necessary know-how and technology for Mars missions.

The lunar economy’s potential is vast, with the European Space Agency predicting hundreds of missions and “total lunar revenues” possibly surpassing 40 billion euros in the next decade and aiming for 170 billion dollars by 2040. The Artemis program alone could significantly boost the U.S. economy: generating over 69,000 jobs, more than 14 billion dollars in economic output, and about 1.5 billion dollars in tax revenues [source: NASA]. Success hinges on the latest technology and leveraging artificial intelligence across multiple mission phases.

Lunar economy and robotics’ contribution

The lunar economy, encompassing initiatives with significant economic impacts and expanding market opportunities, is integral to planning human lunar missions. PwC’s study on the “lunar market” delineates three critical areas impacting the lunar economy: human and resource transit between the Moon and Earth; terrestrial use of lunar data; and resource utilization for mining, production, exports, and infrastructure projects, including lunar construction and energy generation.

The robotics industry plays a vital role, developing robots and automated technologies for space missions.

Both large corporations and startups are venturing into this space, with initiatives like Japan’s Avatar X project pioneering humanoid robots to aid astronauts on lunar missions. Recently, DARPA selected a Japanese space robotics startup focusing on modular robots for tasks in microgravity and on the lunar surface. The European CoRob-X (Cooperative Robots for Extreme Environments) project aims to advance multi-agent robotic team technologies, enhancing the viability of robotic missions and their Earth applications.

The LUVMI-X project is developing a lightweight autonomous rover to explore lunar polar regions, successfully prototyping a vehicle capable of detecting lunar surface water, crucial for manned lunar missions.

AI’s impact on the new lunar mission

The lunar mission’s appeal has led ESA to solicit proposals for lunar economy applications, aiming to enhance exploration by encouraging European companies to develop specialized communication and navigation services.

With over 400 lunar missions anticipated between 2022 and 2032, including scientific, robotic, and crewed missions, the scope of activities—construction, energy, infrastructure, healthcare, and water research—demands innovative living solutions on the Moon, where AI becomes essential. NASA’s Viper robotic lunar rover exemplifies AI’s application, landing on the Moon to survey the astronauts’ future environment as part of the Artemis mission.

The Viper team employs AI algorithms for risk assessment and decision-making optimization. During Viper’s mission, NASA will use AI to map routes, employing Sherpa – System health enabled real-time planning advisor, to navigate the complexities of lunar surface traversal planning. This AI application will enable staff to review and adjust plans, with Sherpa assessing feasibility and identifying issues, showcasing AI’s pivotal role in pioneering lunar exploration.

Focus on machine learning and deep learning techniques

Researchers at the University of Houston’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have adopted a deep learning strategy for planning the lunar rover’s navigation. This approach outperforms traditional methods by considering a wider array of constraints, thus significantly improving movement precision [source: A Deep Learning Approach to Lunar Rover Global Path Planning Using Environmental Constraints and the Rover Internal Resource Status – National Library of Medicine].

Resource discovery, vital for the establishment of permanent bases and human settlements on the Moon, poses significant challenges. An interdisciplinary team has leveraged unsupervised machine learning to detect metal presence, a key resource. Their innovative work was presented at the NeurIPS Workshop on Machine Learning and the Physical Sciences.

Utilizing a variational autoencoder, they’ve devised a technique for isolating and mapping areas likely rich in metals, enhancing the efficiency of data-driven lunar exploration.

The European Explore project represents another data-driven effort, employing machine learning and visual analytics to develop six scientific data applications, including analyses of lunar observations, orbits, and landing sites.

AI’s utility extends to analyzing lunar surface chemistry, a critical factor in revealing geological features and deciphering the Moon’s evolution. A Nature-published study, “Comprehensive mapping of lunar surface chemistry by adding Chang’e-5 samples with deep learning”, introduced a convolutional neural network-based deep learning method, achieving remarkably precise results. This breakthrough is crucial for understanding the Moon’s crust composition and the history of Earth’s sole natural satellite.

Glimpses of Futures

Lunar exploration’s impact is multifaceted, especially regarding the ambition to colonize Mars. The Moon serves as an essential testing ground for solutions and the viability of human habitation on celestial bodies other than Earth.

Lunar missions face numerous challenges, including extreme conditions, absence of atmosphere, and extreme temperatures ranging from +121°C to -133°C [source: NASA]. These obstacles provide a unique opportunity to develop and test Earth-beneficial technologies. As noted by NASA, the International Space Station (ISS) has already served as a crucial experimental platform for Artemis, leading to significant advancements in various scientific fields.

In order to anticipate future scenarios, with the help of STEPS matrix we try to imagine the impacts of future lunar mission, focusing on some of the most significant aspects.

S – SOCIALover five decades of space activity have yielded societal benefits, enhancing Earthly life quality, NASA reports. For instance, pioneering satellites have fostered the growth of satellite telecommunications and meteorological forecasting.

T – TECHNOLOGICAL: lunar mission R&D could introduce novel technological solutions across multiple domains. For example, synthetic biology could revolutionize food production for lunar explorers, and space-based additive manufacturing, such as 3D-printed solar panels on the Moon, could fast-track space infrastructure development with valuable Earth applications.

E – ECONOMIC: prosperous lunar exploration is set to propel the space economy, which stood at $469 billion globally in 2021 [source: Space Foundation].

P – POLITICAL: while lunar missions encourage international cooperation, they also have the potential to shift geopolitical dynamics. Nevertheless, the 57-year-old Outer Space Treaty persists, advocating space exploration and use for the benefit of all humanity.

S – SUSTAINABILITY: lunar missions heighten public awareness about the significance of scientific research and space exploration, offering insights into the lunar environment and the universe beyond, fostering a deeper understanding of our planet.

Written by:

Andrea Ballocchi

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