Aerospace Mission to the Moon - Audi Wants to be the First Vehicle Manufacturer to Land on the Moon
Google is calling for a mission to the moon. The idea is for private teams to send an unmanned rover on a journey to Earth’s satellite and carry out various tasks there. One of the entrants is the Part-Time Scientists team, whose partner Audi is supporting young engineers with its extensive know-how in vehicle construction.
Even nearly 50 years after the first manned moon landing, the moon has lost little of its fascination. In recent decades, however, Earth’s satellite has remained a rather quiet place. Other planets, especially Mars, have received more attention.
Now moon fever has broken out again. Curiously, the cause of this excitement is not one of the usual large space organizations such as NASA, ESA or CNSA, but the technology company Google.
In 2007 Google launched a global competition, the Google Lunar X-Prize, to promote private space activities. The goal of the Internet giant is to help innovative, unconventional and, above all, cost-effective ideas to achieve a breakthrough.
Signing up for the Google Lunar X-Prize is simple enough: submit a technical and business plan, and pay a registration fee. In terms of both technology and finance, however, the barriers are high. The winning team’s vehicle must land safely on the moon after a journey of 384,000 km, travel 500 metres across the lunar surface, and send high-definition images back to Earth. And 90 percent of the project teams will have to get by without financial support from state institutions.
A traffic Accident with Consequences
16 teams still officially remain in the race to the moon. One of these is the Part-Time Scientists (PTScientists), led by Berlin IT consultant Robert Böhme. The team’s young engineers are supported by the automobile manufacturer Audi.
Coincidentally or not, a car also played a big role in the beginnings of the PTScientists team. In 2008, Böhme received EUR 16,000 in compensation for a road accident that was not his fault. Most of this money he immediately earmarked for the Google Lunar X-Prize.
This is a cause dear to Böhme’s heart. Star Trek had aroused his interest in the infinite expanses of space at an early age, and fellow team members share his dedication to space travel. This is about a unique adventure, not a product that will be sold to hundreds of customers.
The prize money – all 20 million dollars of it – plays only a minor role for the PTScientists. They are more concerned with advancing engineering knowledge and creating new insights for technological development. Under the motto “Space belongs to everyone” the team voluntarily discloses all its data. Mankind can only make progress if access to information is guaranteed, Böhme says.
The team comprises 35 young engineers and experts. Their headquarters in an industrial area of Berlin is the perfect place to carry out noisy and dirty work without disturbing the neighbours. Böhme himself has to leave the drilling and hammering to others. He is in demand as a leader and motivator to coordinate the project and keep his team on course.
Building a lunar lander to deliver the payload safely to the moon and a vehicle that can survive a 500-metre journey across the hostile surface is anything but easy. Böhme and his team know that too.
First, their Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module ( ALINA) will ferry the lunar rover from the launch rocket down to the surface of the moon. Then the rover – officially named the Audi Lunar quattro – will carry out its assigned tasks.
The moon has neither a magnetic field nor an atmosphere to protect its surface from radiation. As a result, the vehicle must withstand temperature differences of 300°C between day and night. The dust on the moon’s surface is also a big challenge: 1,000 times finer than ordinary Earth dust, it has edges as sharp as glass splinters. If moon dust gets into the wrong places in the Audi Lunar quattro, the adventure will quickly be over.
In addition to the extremely abrasive environment, the moon’s surface is littered with craters, cracks and crevices of all sizes. Audi’s four-wheel-drive technology, built into the Audi Lunar quattro, is a blessing on this bumpy surface. Each wheel is individually adjustable in height and speed, and can turn through 360°. Intelligent algorithms controlling the four individual wheel hub motors adjust torque levels to prevent wheelspin.
Even the best drive system in the world is of little use without proper orientation. A mobile head and four on-board cameras allow an operator to control the Audi Lunar quattro using a joystick, and to take 3-D photos and panoramas. There’s a snag, though: a transmission delay of 2.5 seconds for the radio signal makes driving the moon rover extremely challenging.
Power for the drive and cameras is supplied by a swivelling solar panel measuring around 300 square centimetres, backed up by a rechargeable battery.
Springboard to Mars
Besides determining the vehicle’s performance on the lunar surface, the design of the Audi Lunar quattro plays another crucial role in the “Mission to the Moon”: meeting the requirements of the launch rocket and the ALINA lander that will deliver it to the surface.
Even before touchdown, the intense radiation and huge temperature fluctuations found in space call for efficient thermal management. Weight is another big issue, since every gramme saved allows the mission to carry more fuel or more experiments.
Audi has shared its know-how on high-strength aluminium and magnesium alloys and state-of-the-art 3-D metal printing techniques. Together, these keep the weight of the Audi Lunar quattro down to 30 kg while allowing it to carry a payload of up to 5 kg.
One idea for a future experiment is to show that a 3-D printer could successfully produce metal parts on the moon’s surface. There’s method to this madness. A successful moon voyage will spur the researchers on to exploring Mars, but for a Mars lander to overcome Earth’s gravity requires a huge launch vehicle. So why not produce components directly on the moon, and launch from there? Admittedly this sounds a long way into the future – but then so did private moon landings until just a few years ago.
Down to the Final Tests
It will be several months before the mission starts. The team will use the time for their last tests and final preparations. Places on the satellite launcher - two identical rovers are allowed to fly to the moon together - have already been booked.
Stress tests in Audi’s solar simulation chamber at a surface temperature of 120°C have been successful. So too were road tests on Tenerife, where the lava rock creates a surface similar to that of the moon.
The biggest obstacles seem to have been overcome and the path to the moon looks clear. If all continues to go to plan, the PTScientists and their Audi Lunar quattro will soon be able to say: “Ignition and lift-off!”
This article was first published by Schweizer MaschinenMarkt.