NASA's Light Bender: Illuminating the Dark Areas of the Moon with Autonomous Robot

Category Engineering

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NASA has been developing a technology that will enable autonomous robots to establish a solar power system in the dark regions of the Moon. The system, called Light Bender, works by reflecting incoming sunlight to solar panels, providing a solar-powered light in permanent darkness. Maxar Technologies, a start-up, is developing the system in collaboration with NASA, and they plan to have an Earth-based demonstration ready by 2025.

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NASA has been primarily focused on investigating the Moon's polar regions in preparation for the upcoming Artemis missions. The Moon's polar regions may contain significant amounts of water mixed with the regolith. Additionally, there are certain areas that never receive sunlight - known as permanently shadowed regions. The craters found in dark areas may still contain reservoirs of frozen water. Finding and quantifying the presence of water on the lunar surface might be useful for future space travelers as well as long-term colonization on the Moon. That said, going to these isolated places and exploring the resources without access to sunlight remains a big challenge.

Light Bender was developed by the start-up Maxar Technologies.

Maxar Technologies, a start-up, has presented a viable technological solution to overcome this challenge. Working with NASA, the company is developing a system that will light up the areas covered in permanent darkness. The concept is called Light Bender.

The technological solution works by reflecting incoming sunlight to solar panels positioned in dark regions. Thereby, providing solar-powered light to these cold and sunlight-devoid regions of the Moon. "Part of what we’re doing is conceptually simple, reflecting sunlight to a solar panel located in the dark," said Sean Dougherty, who is chief robotics architect at Maxar and lead for Light Bender, in a press release. As easy as the concept may sound, establishing the entire system on the Moon remains a tricky task. The company aims to implement autonomous robots on the lunar surface to establish the solar power system. "Where it gets complex is doing that without humans involved. We’re leveraging investments in autonomy to study how NASA can use robots to assemble and deploy a set of reflectors that keep sunlight focused on a solar panel operating in the shadows. It’s never been done before," added Dougherty.

The robotic assembly of the Light Bender requires advanced artificial intelligence.

Light Bender with huge reflectors .

The proposed Light Bender design is based on a 65-foot (20-meter) high pole, or telescoping mast. It will be made up of two 32-feet (10-meter) reflectors, one on the bottom and one on the top. Robots will be trained to autonomously assemble and deploy the pair of reflectors on the lunar surface. The bottom reflector will capture sunlight and reflect it to the secondary mirror, which will then reflect light to the receiver. "The Light Bender reflectors will be the largest ones autonomously assembled in space. Ten-meter mirrors would nearly span the width of a tennis court, and we’re studying how to build it autonomously. It’s no easy feat, but we have the expertise to do it," said Dougherty.

The robotic system for Light Bender includes two 10-meter reflectors, one placed on the bottom and one placed on the top of a 65-foot pole.

If all goes according to plan, the solar panels might be put on any equipment that requires power to function, such as rovers, robots, or Moon habitats. NASA chose Light Bender as part of its Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity. The technological solution is now in the development stage, with an Earth-based demonstration planned for 2025.

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