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Space Talks with Pavlo Tanasyuk, CEO of Spacebit launching UK's first lunar rover
CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk discusses Spacebit's future plans, their upcoming mission, Asagumo Rover, and the advantages of collaborating on NASA CLPS missions.
There is a renewed interest in our neighbor, the Moon. The Artemis program has a significant push towards accelerating private sector participation in lunar-based research and science. Spacebit is one of the very few commercial companies planning to fly on every NASA CLPS delivery on the market. I was fortunate to interview its CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk regarding its upcoming mission, Asagumo Rover, and future endeavors.
It is an exciting time for the space industry. Many private players have stepped in along with the government space agencies, making the competition higher than ever. It's not just the launch vehicle market with renowned names like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab, and more. Still, there are many emerging companies bound to exploring our neighbor Moon.
Google's Lunar X Prize began a race back in 2007, a race to become the first private lander on the Moon. Although sadly no one could win, it started a revolution. Private companies started looking towards Lunar Mission. Even NASA announced the Commercial Lunar Payload Servies (CLPS) program. Under CLPS, NASA contracts companies to transport scientific payloads on landers and rovers to the Moon. Companies can sell spots for other payloads as well, making a viable business solution.
Spacebit is a company developing space robotics technology for lunar and planetary missions, working on space data analytics tools and robotic concepts of space exploration that include AI and advanced micro-robotics. Founded in 2014 by CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk, it is based in London, United Kingdom. Their first mission to the Moon, Asagumo, a unique rover, will piggyback onboard Astrobotic Technology Peregrine Lander with ULA (United Launch Alliance) as the launch provider.
Asagumo Rover - The Morning Spider
Your first mission, the Asagumo rover, is unique in design, giving it unprecedented advantages to explore the lunar surface. Can you explain the ideology behind this design?
Usually, when one thinks of lunar rovers, an image of a wheeled vehicle comes to mind. This is hardly surprising since all existing rovers are based on this standard method of locomotion. By contrast, Spacebit's rover is reminiscent of a four-legged spider. It was named 'Asagumo' after the namesake of a Japanese proverb, the 'morning spider,' which is supposed to bring good luck. It seemed particularly apt since the rover is expected to reach its target early in the morning of the lunar day! Spacebit decided to buck the trend and develop a 'walking rover' because of its intended mission – the exploration of lunar lava tubes, which a traditional wheeled rover might find challenging. Lava tubes are subsurface tunnels formed by basaltic lava flows – on Earth and the Moon - and have long been proposed as viable locations for future lunar habitats, not least because they would offer some natural protection against space radiation. The novel design solution resulted in a relatively small rover, with a total deployed mass of just 1.3 kg. Although weight-saving for lunar vehicles has been fundamental in the design process since Apollo – for launch vehicle payload and cost reasons – modern micro- miniaturization technologies have allowed the development of a rover that weighs little more than that legendary yardstick, the 'bag of sugar'. The Asagumo rover is effectively a 'walking CubeSat' - cubical body (without legs) measures 10 cm on a side. Its first outing – dubbed 'Mission One' - is essentially a technology demonstration mission. One of the main operational requirements of the rover is for it to walk 10 meters - though, of course, the company hopes this notional target will be exceeded. The rover's payload includes a high-definition camera and a LIDAR (laser-based measuring device).
How would a spider-like walking rover enable exploration of Lunar Lava Tubes?
Many people were skeptical about the legs – and some of them still are. Even though we have already demonstrated it can move on the surface of Earth, we still have to prove that it can do the same on the Moon, but yes, there is some skepticism from the scientific community. But as a conceptual form, it's a very interesting design because it can allow us to basically step over some obstacles. It can allow us to go in [lava tubes] at a certain angle. It can also allow us to maybe even jump on the Moon in certain conditions. It's basically like a spider. If you look at what nature has created, you don't really see anything built with wheels, and we can go over hard terrain. It proves that sometimes you need legs to do certain specific tasks. If it's military combat and you need something to carry along a soldier, you can't really do that with wheels because of the terrain. The same applies to the Moon. There are two things here to note. First of all, we're doing this because we really want to go into a lava tube, and we believe it's one of the better designs to do so. Secondly, I decided to go for this challenge because it's a cool design, and I believe it's something different. It would be very obvious to go with the wheels as it's a much simpler way. Sometimes we do regret choosing the legs because it's so much more challenging than two wheels. But it's an exciting technology, and I believe that in our future on the Moon and other celestial bodies, you will have robots with wheels, and you will have robots with legs. That's why we have to be pioneers.
Second Wheeled Rover
Spacebit is also working on another larger rover, very different in design from Asagumo, that will be launched onboard Intuitive Machines, NOVA-C Lander, by SpaceX rocket, again as part of NASA's CLPS program.
As I understand, there is another lunar rover mission in development. Can you tell us about that mission and how it is different from Asagumo?
Spacebit opted for wheels on its second lander because the company is eager to see how a different technology responds to the lunar surface. In addition, a wheeled rover is likely to require just two motors while Spacebit's Asagumo rover will require between six and 12 rovers to walk on four legs, he added. The company is continuing to expand its staff as it develops instruments for its lunar missions and the wheeled rover it plans to fly on the Intuitive Machines lander. Through sensors as well as still images and video, Spacebit plans to obtain detailed information on lunar regolith. While Apollo astronauts brought lunar regolith to Earth for analysis, a small rover moving across the lunar surface may obtain additional insight. We will be able to measure the lunar dust in its natural environment and see the electrostatic charge. For the second Nova-C lander launch, Spacebit is preparing a wheeled rover that will carry a small NASA scientific module. Both the wheeled and the walking rover are designed to help assess what kind of resources are available on the surface of the Moon, with the aim of providing support for the Artemis program. This will provide Spacebit with multiple opportunities to assess the makeup of the regolith (the equivalent of soil for other planets), which is its primary goal with these missions. The different rover designs will also mean it can better assess which is more amenable to the task.
Is Lunar Exploration the only future path for SpaceBit, or you plan to diversify in other fields?
Spacebit hopes to provide a service that will help kick-start the lunar economy. It intends to work on other robotic technologies and the propulsion systems that deliver them from lunar orbit to the surface and back. In doing so, the company is keen to drive and support what might be called a 'green lunar economy,' specifically offering more environmentally-friendly engineering solutions for propulsion and in-situ power generation. Indeed, the protection of the lunar environment as part of a sustainable lunar economy is paramount in the company's ethos. Also embedded in Spacebit's ethos is a determination to support science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) education. Spacebit believes that operating commercial space missions to the Moon can help democratize access to space. As such, the company is a true proponent of NewSpace and a disruptor of the 'status quo' in space, as well as having high aspirations.
Private participation in Lunar Exploration is increasing, but collaboration would the key to success. It is also evident in your partnerships with Astrobotics, SpaceX, and involvement in NASA's CLPS program. How has the experience been so far, and how do you envision these collaborations help the Lunar Exploration?
Partnerships have always been the foundation of success in space. The first 'flags' installed during the Apollo 11 mission were solar wind experiments developed in Switzerland. It is clear that the next step in space exploration will be more global, but it will also entail great opportunities for private and public collaboration. Companies such as Blue Origin and Space X are increasingly involved in NASA's projects. The more cooperation we gather to solve complex problems for humanity as a whole, the better our collective opportunities can grow in Space Exploration. In October 2020, Spacebit signed a contract for a second lunar delivery mission that will be launched onboard Intuitive Machines, NOVA-C Lander, by SpaceX rocket as part of NASA's CLPS program. So we will be working on two UK missions to the Moon next year with our microbot rover technologies. It is an exciting time for space exploration, particularly the Moon, and the great push towards accelerating private sector participation in lunar-based research and science under the Artemis Program. Spacebit is one of the very few commercial companies planning to fly on every NASA CLPS delivery on the market. Everything we do and achieve in space has an impact on our day-to-day lives here on Earth.
I thank CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk for taking time for the interview and also a big thanks to Maksym Shkurat, the Communications Manager at Spacebit for arranging it.