Lunar ambitions take flight

In All, Features, Science & Technology by Linda Givetash

This piece was featured by Technology Spotlight

NEW HAMBURG, Canada — Tucked in a corner of an industrial building in New Hamburg that is filled with rubber tires, gears and transmissions is a small area where the future of space exploration is taking shape.

Ontario Drive & Gear, makers of the Argo all-terrain vehicle, is fine-tuning a vehicle that it hopes will rocket into space and travel to the moon. In July, it put the latest prototypes through tests to determine whether the rover is able to endure the extreme climate and rough landscape of the moon. With officials from NASA watching, two prototypes, both called Artemis Jr., were run over the rough volcanic craters of Hawaii. The demonstration proved that the company can successfully develop a reliable vehicle that can handle any terrain on Earth — and beyond. “Everything went flawlessly for us,” says Peter Visscher, the firm’s space and robotics manager.

The space agency was impressed with the durability and reliability of Artemis Jr., says Visscher. “NASA has requested this rover for a flight,” he says. “The way they look at it is, this works so well we couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The rover needs only the approval and funding of the Canadian Space Agency and the federal government to take part in a future lunar mission that will prospect for water and other resources. If all goes as planned, it could be carrying the Canadian flag to the moon on a proposed launch in 2017.

Ontario Drive & Gear — or ODG as the company refers to itself — started its space and robotics division in 2008 after being approached by the space agency to develop a vehicle that could be considered for a lunar mission. It took only six weeks for the company to create a few concepts; those concepts evolved into the first generation of ODG rovers, called Juno. “We’ve gone a lot farther a lot faster than we thought,” says Visscher

After receiving acclaim for the simple but durable rover, the company was contracted to upgrade Juno, which lead to the development of the Juno II and the current rover, Artemis Jr. The company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this  year, says its rovers are successful, in large part, because of their simplicity. “They’re very easy to drive and they’re easy to design,” says Visscher. “Some of the other NASA rovers that they sent to Mars were very complicated.”

Unlike other rovers that have a motor for every wheel on the vehicle, Artemis Jr. uses only two motors.

Every motor on the vehicle requires its own wiring, sensors, controls and heaters so by having fewer motors, fewer parts are used, saving the project time and money.

“We were targeting a less expensive rover, a simpler rover and ultimately one that is reliable for years to come,” Visscher says. The battery that powers the rover is ingeniously built into the frame, protecting it from the elements and reducing the rover’s bulk.

The biggest challenge the company faced was designing wheels for temperatures that rubber could never withstand. “We have to operate between minus 150 (Celsius) and plus 150 (Celsius), so that’s a pretty extreme range,” says Visscher. “At 150, the rubber would melt; at minus 150 it would shatter.”

Even if the temperature wasn’t a problem, the combination of no atmosphere and extreme radiation on the moon would destroy any rubber tire that touched down on its surface. “We’ve basically had to invent our own wheel, reinvent the wheel,” says Visscher. The wheels on the current prototype are a combination of metals, including titanium, spring steel and aluminum.

The tests in Hawaii, conducted as part of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program, were designed to determine how the Artemis Jr. would fare on the moon and identify problems in the rover’s de- sign. While the terrain was rough on the wheels of both prototypes that were tested — they had to drive over rocks and craters — they performed well and didn’t fail. Visscher says that for the actual flight to the moon, the wheels will be scaled down in size and will be lighter to take advantage of the lack of gravity in the lunar environment.

From the wheels to the tiniest wire, the rover is being perfected to serve its purpose of carrying the NASA payload: the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction.

The extraction technology planned for the payload — a Canadian drill and NASA commissioned chemical plant and spectrometers — are intended to search for oxygen, water, ice and other resources that might exist on the moon. If these basic resources are found, space agencies can begin plans to develop fueling stations on the moon. “If we find water on the moon, first of all we can support people there for a lot longer and a lot cheaper,” explains Visscher.

He adds that if water is found it might be possible to create rocket fuel on the moon so travel could be extended. Launching rockets off the moon is much easier and requires less fuel than it does on Earth because the moon doesn’t have the same gravity and atmosphere. “If we ever want to send big spaceships out to Mars, we can save a lot of money by producing fuel on the moon,” Visscher says.

Other possibilities that Visscher says may be a bit more “out there” include harvesting helium-3, a potential fuel source that is scarce on Earth but found in abundance on the moon. If the right technology can be designed, the helium isotope could be used in nuclear fusion to generate energy with less risk of radioactivity, or for nuclear medicine.

Before any of those possibilities can be explored, NASA first needs to get rovers on the moon to determine how accessible water and other resources are, and what equipment would be needed to extract them. “Once we set up that infrastructure on the moon some of these things that sound far fetched might not be so far fetched,” says Visscher.

If water and oxygen are found, ODG could play a big role building the infrastructure to harvest those resources. “What we’re looking at is lunar tractors,” says Visscher. “Fortunately I have a farming back- ground so a lunar tractor makes sense to me.”

While ODG’s space and robotics department is excited by the opportunities for space travel in the years to come, the company has not lost sight of its strengths. While waiting for the 2017 lunar project to be approved by the Canadian Space Agency, the company is maintaining its focus on its core products — power transmission components, including gears, and the Argo all-terrain vehicle. “What we’re doing is we’re taking some of the technology we developed under these (space) contracts and we’re trying to put them to use in our commercial products,” Visscher says.

As the Argo benefits from innovations made with the lunar rover, ODG will further solidify its reputation for building vehicles that can conquer any terrain — on Earth or otherwise.