NASA’s Moon Tracks Use Levitating Limbless Robots

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NASA, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC), is looking to build the “first lunar railway system” using robots and a concept called FLOAT –Flexible Levitation on a Track. This lunar railway system is meant to provide “reliable, autonomous, and efficient payload transport on the Moon,” as NASA explained in a statement.

When NASA’s ‘Artemis’ moon exploration program eventually lands humans on the Moon, it will mark the start of a new era for space exploration. That is because the space agency wants to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon as well as a lunar economy, a lunar base that will serve as a “stepping stone” for further human exploration of our solar system, beginning with Mars.

Ethan Schaler, a robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained in NASA’s statement: “A durable, long-life robotic transport system will be critical to the daily operations of a sustainable lunar base in the 2030s, as envisioned in NASA’s Moon to Mars plan and mission concepts like the Robotic Lunar Surface Operations 2 (RLSO2).”

According to Interesting Engineering, the FLOAT system uses unpowered magnetic robots that levitate over a 3-layer flexible film track that enables them to passively float over the tracks using diamagnetic levitation and propel them along the track using electromagnetic thrust while generating solar power.

The most important fact about the FLOAT robots is that they levitate over the track while featuring no moving parts – the plan is for the track to do all the work, while the robots essentially act as carts for transporting cargo. NASA claims this will help “minimize lunar dust abrasion [and] wear, unlike lunar robots with wheels, legs, or tracks.”

However, although the FLOAT system could become a key lunar infrastructure, it won’t provide high-speed transportation. The robots will reportedly move at speeds of 1.61 kph and transport roughly 90 metric tons of lunar regolith each day.

However, before the FLOAT system becomes reality NASA must first establish its lunar presence on the Moon. NASA’s Artemis III mission is planned to send astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2026 or 2027, the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.