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By  James Fettes Mikayla Keen 16 February 2024 5 min read

Key points

  • The new missions to return to the Moon and develop a base there are an opportunity for innovation.
  • We’re working on new technology like autonomous mapping to navigate off-world.
  • Technology developed for space can end up being useful in everyday life on Earth, and vice versa.

It may not seem like it, but space is important for us here on Earth. We use satellites every day to navigate via GPS and observe bushfires, crops, and even water quality. But there’s also a lot of interest and missions heading to the Moon. Why?

Apart from being pretty darn cool and awe-inspiring, space throws up lots of challenges that drive innovation. Solutions in space are often applied back on Earth for our everyday benefit, like Velcro and wireless headsets.

A lot has changed since the Apollo era of the 1960s and 70s when humans last went to the Moon. The latest generation of robotic and crewed Moon missions – such as NASA’s Artemis program – plan to not just send astronauts to the Moon, but keep them there. NASA and other space agencies aim to establish a research presence on the Moon. They want to explore and also set up a base for further exploration of our Solar System.

Dr Mark Cheung is our Science Director for Space & Astronomy.

“This presents a whole new set of challenges,” Mark says.

“Establishing a research outpost on the Moon requires a whole raft of expertise including communications, additive manufacturing, robotics and even law. Like the research bases in Antarctica, we need to tread lightly, create sustainable solutions, and protect scientific opportunities.

"It is an accelerator for our technologies to be more resilient and efficient.”

Phoning home from the moon

Most of us don’t leave home without our mobile phones. How does a spacecraft or little rover keep in touch? On a very basic level, you need a transmitter and receiver at either end of the call. Because the Earth rotates, you’ll need a few receivers scattered around the globe to ensure the line stays open.

[Music plays and an animation image appears of a spacecraft above a thick coloured line and then the image shows a hand holding a magnifying glass and moving along above the line]

Narrator: When we say we’re tracking a spacecraft that doesn’t mean we’re following it down the street to the shops.

[Animation image changes to show dotted lines appearing within the coloured line and text appears: Spacecraft tracking]

So, what does it mean?

[Camera zooms out to show people in front of a bank of computer screens displaying spacecraft data]

Tracking can involve several things, working out where the spacecraft is, receiving data from it and sending commands.

[Animation image changes to show a satellite dish against a night sky and then the camera zooms out to show a line linking from the satellite dish to the spacecraft and text appears: s = (t*c)/2]

We work out the spacecraft’s distance by sending it a radio message and having it reply straight away.

Animation image changes to show wavy lines linking the spacecraft to a world globe against a starry sky]

Radio waves travel at the speed of light so the time it takes to get the message back tells us how far away the spacecraft is. We learn the spacecraft’s position in the sky by measuring its angular distance from a known star or other object.

[Animation image shows the spacecraft in the night sky surrounded by various pictures depicting data being collected]

Spacecraft gather a lot of data.

[Animation image shows the data pictures rotating around the spacecraft and then disappearing and a stream of ones and zeros appear in a line behind the spacecraft]

This can be pictures or measurements of the temperature and pressure of a planet’s atmosphere, the strength of its gravity, or its magnetic field.

[Camera zooms out to show the lines of zeros and ones linking down to a satellite dish on the world globe]

The information is digitised into binary code, ones and zeros, then converted to radio waves, and beamed to earth.

[Animation image changes to show people in front of a bank of computer screens covered with ones and zeros and then the screens change to depict various data pictures on the screens]

Large dishes catch the weak signals. We turn the signals back into ones and zeros and then into a picture of whatever the original data was helping scientists make new discoveries.

[Animation image changes to show a satellite dish sending a line of ones and zeros up to a spacecraft in the sky and then the image shows the spacecraft changing direction]

Finally, some dishes can also transmit instructions to a spacecraft to adjust its course, take measurements, or turn instruments on and off.

[Animation image shows the spacecraft rotating in the sky and the image shows a purple coloured planet moving past the spacecraft]

Spacecraft are the eyes and ears we send out to explore the solar system and beyond. We track them to stay in touch so they know where to go, what to do, and when to send their discoveries back home.

[Image changes to show the CSIRO logo on a dark blue screen]

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“We’ve been supporting space missions for more than 60 years via the use of our radio telescopes. More recently, we have managed communication stations on behalf of NASA and the European Space Agency,” Mark says.

With the increasing number of missions, the traditional deep space networks are already heavily subscribed. Commercial space companies need to establish alternate ground station networks to support their missions. Intuitive Machines is one of several commercial companies contracted by NASA to lead robotic lunar missions under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative[Link will open in a new window].

“In 2021, we joined Intuitive Machines' Lunar Data Network which will see Murriyang, our Parkes radio telescope, support Intuitive Machines’ first lunar mission, IM-1, which is delivering NASA and commercial science experiments and technology demonstrations to the Moon’s south polar region,” Mark says.

artist impression of Intuitive Machines' rectangular lunar lander on Moon surface with Earth visible in the far left background.
Commercial space company, Intuitive Machines is delivering technology and experiments to the Moon to support future missions under NASA's Artemis program. ©  Intuitive Machines

Taking Earth-based technology to space

Lunar exploration demands complex technologies. Off-world navigation, radiation shielding, life support, and power generation are all needed to get humans to the Moon and set up permanent residence.

Inevitably, this technology is created on Earth – often to solve everyday problems.

Take our multi-resolution scanning payload. This device creates highly detailed 3D maps of its surrounding environment. It was developed to map regions where human exploration may be difficult or hazardous, like in mining. In space, it has the potential to track inventory, report on hull damage or even navigate off-world.

Lauren Hanson is our Senior Mechanical Engineer.

“There was a lot of iteration involved to get this tech to space. We have to handle the vibration window of the launch vehicle and microgravity when in orbit. We have to choose the right materials and ensure there are no sharp edges,” she says.

“Space really unites all of us behind a common goal and passion. It’s been great to be involved in a project where we take experts from their everyday jobs and pull them together.”

Ultimately, the translation of technology has the power to go both ways. Developments for off-world use can be reapplied for Earth-based operations. The Apollo missions resulted in similar technological leaps. These advances led to the creation of new products, including air purifiers and insulin pumps.

Dr Marc Elmouttie is a Team Leader in our Mineral Resources team. 

In the case of multi-resolution scanning, Marc’s team is investigating the fusion of two underlying technologies. Back home on Earth, they want to use what they discover to support fields like geotechnical engineering.

“Being able to simultaneously understand where you are in the mine and also capture the fractures in the rock in very high-resolution is of huge value,” Marc says.

CSIRO's multi-resolution scanning payload, attached to an Astrobee robot platform in a simulated ISS environment at NASA Ames Research Centre.

Sustaining life off-world, sustainably

Getting to the Moon is one thing, maintaining a long-term robotic and human presence is another thing entirely.

To sustain life, lunar operations will require many things including power and water. It’s very expensive to send things to the Moon from Earth, so being able to access and use local materials is really important.

Fortunately, the lunar south pole looks to have most of the desirable materials. For example, water ice remains trapped in permanently shadowed craters, offering an important lifeline. The process of accessing these local materials is known as in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU).

The dust chamber can house relatively large quantities of crusher dust that can be used to replicate a lunar terrain profile. ©  CSIRO

Dr Jonathon Ralston leads our ISRU team.

“To support long-term robotic and human lunar missions, we need to be able to find resources, extract them, and use them where we find them,” Jonathon says.

Off-world resource supply systems need to operate as a closed loop ecosystem. Sustainability is crucial. Like most space technology, these systems can then be applied back to Earth to reduce our impact on our home planet.

It’s still early days and there’s lots of challenges still to be solved, but Jonathon and the ISRU team are on the case. 

“This is an exciting and important technology, and we're still evaluating the components we’ll need to make it work.

"As we do, we will benefit our terrestrial industries while maturing the technology so that it will be ready to work on the Moon or Mars,” Jonathon says. 

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