Drones on the Moon

In a new post over at Air & Space, I consider some of the advantages and drawbacks to the possible use of robotic drones in the exploration and prospecting of the Moon.  Comment here is desired.

This entry was posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space technology, Space transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Drones on the Moon

  1. billgamesh says:

    As the Space Launch System gets closer to launch and the space station to nowhere gets closer to decommissioning the question of how and where to explore will increasingly take center stage. The dead end of Low Earth Orbit and complete impracticality of going directly to Mars is becoming glaringly apparent. There is also the question of a fork in this road and which direction to take; conventional robot missions like Pluto and Ceres or the political football game called Human Space Flight.

    The fundamental funding decision for some is humans or robots. For most of the people who read and comment on forums like this space exploration means Human Space Flight. What is so sad and frustrating to me is the misdirection and deceptions perpetrated by the NewSpace mob. To the NewSpace sycophants space “exploration” is Low Earth Orbit space station vacations and any amount of deceit necessary to make their bizarro Ayn-Rand-in-Space fantasy come true.

    In my view the correct path was laid out by Gerard K. O’Neill in the 70’s and only by returning to that concept of space colonization is there any hope of progress for next several decades and the rest of this century. The very first step is clearly explain- or rather expose- to the public the true situation as it stands concerning the space program. Of course the prerequisite is a citizenry that actually cares about getting back into space. Finding lava tubes on the Moon would be part of that.

    The super-tubes that may exist are a ready-made radiation sanctuary that astronauts could simply inflate office building size structures in. Finding them with mini-drones is a worthwhile project. The problem is that according to Dr. Spudis no ice deposits are likely to be found near these lava tubes. I wonder what the best guess is on the distance separating such a Luna city site and the nearest ice deposits necessary to sustain it. Robot water trucks may be next proposal of interest.

    • Michael Wright says:

      “What is so sad and frustrating to me is the misdirection and deceptions perpetrated by the NewSpace mob.”

      There you go again… however I think your mentions are beneficial as New Space always portrayed as “can do no wrong” and its advocates at times I see is overly optimistic (i.e. previous article “good at marketing” as Spudis points out total mass delivered to LEO is far lower than Shuttle). One question I have about NewSpace is can it scale up? Or will it be one or two flights per month delivering only a few tons of cargo each?

      • billgamesh says:

        One question I have about NewSpace is can it not blow up? The Glory satellites, Spaceship one, Orbital, and that flagship hobby rocket the falcon 9 are all non-starters compared to ULA running at close to 100 in a row of zero launch failures. And the space shuttle at over 100 in a row means the “cheaper is better” approach seems to be the worst possible path. Nobody seems to remember the Apollo 1 fire and how the space shuttle was supposed to pay for itself. There is no cheap. And that means NewSpace is on the way out. Any more questions?

      • Joe says:

        “One question I have about NewSpace is can it scale up? Or will it be one or two flights per month delivering only a few tons of cargo each?”

        We are getting a bit off topic here, but (with Dr. Spudis indulgence) I will play for one round.

        Even if you hypothetically accept Musk’s assertions that he can produce a re-useable Falcon 9 that can be launched 1,000’s of times per year, the question is, to launch what? Without an answer to that question, there is no reason for the vehicle.

        I am a supporter (for a lot of technical reasons) of an HLV in the 70 – 100 Metric Ton range and think that the SLS Block I will nicely meet that requirement. However that is because I support a Lunar Development Program basically like that proposed by Spudis/Lavoie.

        We all spend too much time arguing what kind of boosters to acquire and spend to little time talking about what our objectives should be.

        If I could be convinced that the best way to stage a practical lunar return was the ACME Sling Shot (preferred by Wylie Coyote – Trademark/Patent Pending) that would be OK with me.

        • billgamesh says:

          In my view the very large pressure fed booster is the missing piece of technology that needs to be developed. A pair of such “methane monsters” two or 3 times more powerful than the shuttle SRB’s and recovered in the same fashion is the first prerequisite for developing a cislunar infrastructure.

          The second piece of the puzzle is the Ehricke/von Braun “wet workshop.” I have commented in the past on placing empty stages in lunar polar frozen orbit and filling them with moon water. This seems (to me anyway) the most efficient way of establishing a long duration human presence Beyond Earth Orbit by constructing true space stations and space ships. The ascent engine on the reusable lander might even be used to insert the workshop into lunar orbit. This robot lander might land on ice deposits, manufacture methane propellent using the trapped volatiles, and thus ferry water-as-shielding up to the workshop.

          The third component may or may not be a hydrogen engine module that after the TLI burn separates from the wet workshop, flies around the Moon on a free return trajectory and reenters, parachutes into the ocean, and is recovered (maybe just the turbopump/s) for reuse. Of course I understand it is not as simple as that but variations of this scheme are my ACME slingshot.

        • Michael Wright says:

          “Falcon 9 that can be launched 1,000’s of times per year, the question is, to launch what?”

          Reminds me of what was said in 1970s each Shuttle vehicle will have two week turnaround and deliver 65,000 lbs of payload. Though never met those goals, there were some people asked, “to launch what?”

          Getting back to the Moon, if it is to become an economic development then some clear objectives and benefits need to be understood. And good note we have been spending too much time arguing about boosters.

          • billgamesh says:

            “-too little time talking about what our objectives should be.”

            I cannot speak for Joe but in my view what his statement equates to is that once the objective is identified, that, in effect, identifies the booster. The fundamental deception being propagated by NewSpace is that inferior lift boosters can take us to anywhere we want to go by way of the “depot miracle.” Their objective is NOT the Moon.

            Setting up a depot and filling it with propellents and then sending up the spacecraft to be re-fueled to actually go to the Moon- that is a horrible mess that is never going to accomplish anything.

            Any realistic program to develop the Moon will in fact require a launch vehicle several times more powerful than the Saturn V- which was in reality just barely capable of landing people on the Moon due to LOR (lunar orbit rendezvous).
            SLS is the minimum first step.

            After years of screaming at the top of their lungs that any such vehicle or any increase in the Human Space Flight budget is a sin against the human race, NewSpace propaganda has conditioned the public to favor their approach- the worst possible path.

          • Joe says:

            “Getting back to the Moon, if it is to become an economic development then some clear objectives and benefits need to be understood.”

            Agreed. But there have been many good research activities done on this subject:

            At the risk of sounding like I am complimenting our host the best of the most recent can be found here:


            I have also reviewed work on the subject done in the 1960s/1970s by Krafft Erhicke. Unfortunately have never found links to on-line copies.

            The trick is to get the people with the power to take them seriously. The VSE was a big step in that direction, then (with a change in administration) it was abandoned because:

            “Buzz has already been there.”

            So here we are trying again.

    • LocalFluff says:

      Commercial space is about real persons doing something. Not just sitting around and complaining about guys like Bush, Clinton, Bush and Clinton and Bush not making your dreams come true. I’m so sorry, but they who are the government, don’t care about you. You will keep in failing while the doers accomplish something.

      • Paul Spudis says:

        Commercial space is about real persons doing something.

        It’s not “commercial” (all of their funding comes from government contracts, one way or the other) and they are not “doing something” that hasn’t been done continuously for the last 50 years. But keep believing what you do and have another sip of the Kool-Aid.

        • billgamesh says:

          “con·fi·dence game
          noun: confidence trick; plural noun: confidence tricks; noun: confidence game; plural noun: confidence games

          a swindle in which the victim is persuaded to trust the swindler in some way.”

          Whether it is called commercial space or private space or NewSpace, this swindle has persuaded the public that a couple hundred miles up is the same as a million miles away. It is an order-of-magnitude scam. The “edge of space” is actually 22,236 miles up and the Moon orbits less than one order of magnitude farther out. Low Earth Orbit is not really space, which begins a hundred times the distance NewSpace is calling the great beyond.

          Cislunar space encompasses the quarter million or so miles around the Earth- the first step for the human race into outer space. This domain starts at GEO and on the other side of this minor sea is the Moon. The majority of revenue presently generated from commercial activity comes from geostationary telecommunications satellites.

          “A confidence trick is also known as a scam, a hustle, a flimflam, or a bamboozle. The intended victims are known as “marks”, “suckers”, or “gulls” (ie, gullible). When accomplices are employed, they are known as shills.”

          LEO has about as much in common with outer space as a duck pond does with the North Atlantic. The NewSpace flimflam is to sell this duck pond to the gullible and uninformed as the new world. The only information the public is seeing is infomercials endlessly regurgitated from a legion of paid and unpaid deluded shills.

          “Confidence tricks exploit characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty, honesty, credulity, irresponsibility, naïveté and greed.”

          Taking these in order, the NewSpace scammers and spammers are dishonest in their portrayal of the flagship company as a free market miracle. It is in reality the poster child for corporate welfare. The public (the suckers) honestly believe this all-American hype. When NewSpace ideology is questioned the shills portray any such criticism as incredible and “communistic.” The irresponsibility is found in our public servants who are in key positions in the space agency as two faced double agents of the NewSpace flagship company. The public is naive concerning this corruption and last there is the promise of something for nothing- of going into space on the cheap- the eternal appeal to greed.

          There is no cheap.

      • Joe says:

        And if you ever do get to “Musk Town” remember to get the Kool-Aid from the unsweetened line.

        Historically, drinking the sweetened Kool-Aid has not been a good idea.

      • Actually our government space program did make our dreams come true! Less than four years after NASA’s creation, America had a human in orbit above the Earth. And just 11 years after NASA’s creation, America had humans on the Moon.

        But 13 years after its creation, Space X hasn’t even placed a single human being into orbit. But that hasn’t stopped its billionaire CEO from asking for more tax payer money for his efforts while suing the Federal government in order to gain even more access to tax payer funded government contracts.

        The primary problem with NASA is that its a government program that actually works!

        Many on the left don’t like this because of their innate feeling that human space travel is a wasteful folly that strays away from helping the poor. And many on the right don’t like NASA’s human space program because– they just don’t like any government programs– with the exception of the military of course:-)

        So over the past 40 years, these political forces have managed to dramatically slow the technological progress of NASA’s human space program while continuing to perpetuate the myth that human spaceflight is a largely– unaffordable economic burden to the American economy– when exactly the opposite is true!

        Fortunately, there are still many in Congress– and sometimes even in the Executive Branch– who believe in the benefits of a progressive human space program.

        NASA’s human space program is good government! And private commercial space companies are some of the biggest beneficiaries of America’s government space program. In fact, these private space companies probably wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the tax payer investment in NASA and DOD space programs.


  2. J Fincannon says:

    One wonders if it is or will be soon practical to utilize mechanical spring “hopping” (perhaps using memory metals or the like) instead of fuel oriented devices.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Probably for short-range hops, a few meters long or so around a landing site. In this piece, I was thinking mostly of larger distances — several hundred meters to several kilometers, at altitudes between 10 and 100 meters.

      • billgamesh says:


        This can jump 180 feet on the Moon. A rover like this could also be designed with a rocket system to be used as a last resort if jumping out of a trap is not working. We manufacture all kinds of weapons and now civilian robots of various types- what is needed is mass production of a moon robot so a single SLS launch can land a horde of them at the lunar poles and near lava-tube likely areas. Follow up SLS missions would transport more robots.

        I would guess (just a guess) the most expensive part of such a program would be the close to 6 figure a year salaries of the small army of scientist operators required to tele-operate the dozens and possibly hundreds of such vehicles. Carefully orchestrated autonomous operations could reduce the number and using less expensive operators (college students?) might be the answer. What is sad is that we have the technology to execute such a massive exploration program at reasonable cost- but the powers that are not going to let it happen.

        Knowing where the ice and lava tubes are make setting up permanent bases on the Moon a vastly less expensive proposition. For example with a known lava tube site and a known ice deposit site the 6 Apollo missions could have possibly set up a system of transporting water from the ice site to the tube site and set up a base in 1972.

        And we would probably have several hundred people (or more?) on the Moon today.

      • J Fincannon says:

        I guess hopping is an old concept. But they were thinking about do human transportation.

        More recently, coffee can sized ones can jump 20 ft on Earth
        “The researchers opted for a combustion-powered hopper because hydrocarbon fuels provide much greater energy densities than batteries and allow the hopper to travel greater distances and clear larger obstacles. Others had tried jumpers using electrically-actuated springs and different methods, but the energy required for a leap that could at least clear the robot’s own height was too great, and batteries wouldn’t last long enough for long-range missions.”

        An interesting engineering challenge to get one to be practical on the Moon using no fuel.

        • billgamesh says:


          If we are going to cruise people around the lunar surface for long duration exploration excursions then actually the unavoidable requirement is for a massively shielded ground transport. Such vehicles mean the astronauts need step out into the bath of radiation on the surface only for the most interesting close encounters and then as quickly as possible get back behind the shield. In this way they can stretch out their cumulative exposure as much as possible until their lifetime limit is reached. Such vehicles would also be useful as robots for transporting water (which coincidentally is excellent radiation shielding) from the poles to equatorial bases. Being able to melt regolith down and pour it as a basic structural alloy would make producing the body and structure of such a vehicle on site practical.

  3. finkh says:

    Pogo Sticks May Be Used To Explore Lunar Surface
    Dr. Howard S. Seifert, Stanford professor of aeronautics and astronautics, has developed a concept of moon travel based on the principle of the Pogo stick. The Pogo stick-like transportation device would make its first leap by employing a source of high pressure gas, roughly analogous to the boiler in a steam engine. After its first leap the system’s Pogo stick principle would enable it to maintain a high degree of mechanical efficiency. The entire assembly would consist of two space cabins, one on either side of a hollow, 40foot, steel tube. Pilot and passenger would ride in one cabin, while the power plant, flightcontrol, and life-support systems would be housed in the other. Vaulting Pole The cabins would ride up and down the pole along with a piston device, which would compress the gas upon landing and be driven up the pole by the gas for acceleration. About 30 feet up the pole the cabin structure would lock into place and carry the pole with it into the air. At the start of the vehicle’s trajectory the pole would lean forward at a 45-degree angle, to
    give the craft its forward momentum. During its 400-foot leap, a system of gyros would keep the cabin structure level while the pole arced and moved to a forward position to prepare for landing. When the pole’s “traction foot” made contact with the surface, it would be leaning backward 45 degrees, and the cabins would be near the top. As the cabins slid gently downward, the pole would use its own momentum to flip forward, positioning itself for the next hop. Stanford Excellent For Pogo Professor Seifert told the Dally yesterday: “Stanford is a particularly good site for the further development of this concept because the University is strong in the field of gyroscopics, the field of dynamics of rigid bodies, and the field of structures. In addition, it is fortunate that James Adams, who worked on the design of the Surveyor moon craft at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, came to Stanford this year.” Pogo Stick-Mounted Computer Since the moon’s gravity is only about one-sixth that of the earth, Seifert predicts that acceleration forces would equal one earth “g” for about three seconds, followed by 12-second intervals of free flight.


  4. Michael Wright says:

    Drones to explore caves on the Moon sounds very exciting and how drones can be used to explore lunar areas not easily accessible by rovers. Maybe this and other robotic efforts may increase interest in returning to the Moon. Something for the NewSpace mob to pursue? Of course they will have to deliver the goods instead grand proposals for Mars that will always be 20 years away.

    Other countries must have ideas for robotic missions though they are finding it difficult to do i.e. recent Chinese rover.

    And thanks to additional comments by Tony Lavoie on your previous blog as he mentions details of spacecraft mass fractions that are lacking in many studies.

    • billgamesh says:

      “Something for the NewSpace mob to pursue?”

      The space clown wannabe crowd is all about Low Earth Orbit tourism. They want nothing to do with anything lunar because a Super Heavy Lift Vehicle bypassing the dead end of LEO dumps the NewSpace business plan in the trashcan- where it belongs. They have recently begun making noise about possibly using the falcon faux heavy as a Moon rocket but it in just obfuscation.

      SpaceX was hoping to take over the commercial satellite launch business on the taxpayers NASA dime and also open the DOD spy satellite treasure chest but that all changed when that last falcon blew up. It is just that nobody realizes it yet. The chances of astronauts ever flying on a vehicle that exploded or launching a billion dollars of spy satellite on 27 engines strapped together is actually very small- regardless of all the P.R. to the contrary.

      Microgravity strip clubs is the idea they started with and that is about all they have right now. 4000 shoebox satellites providing internet for poor Africans is not going to pay off. Since no investors are going spend a dime on LEO space stations when it is crystal clear they are extremely expensive and billionaut tourists cannot make them pay off either- I would say the whole entrepreneurial commercial space revolution is about to implode.


  5. If we had a permanent outpost on the Moon then mobile robots could continuously explore the lunar surface. Interesting samples could be brought back by the robots to the human outpost for examination and eventual shipment back to Earth.

    Mobile robots equipped with cranes could drive up to the edge of a– lava tube– and deploy a mobile robot attacked to a cable that would crawl down to the surface of the tube. At the bottom of the tube, the mobile robot could detach itself from the cable to explore and to collect samples. When its done, the robot can reattach itself to the cable and would gradually crawl up to the surface.

    Hundreds of lava tubes over the course of a decade could be visited this way– if we had a permanent lunar outpost.


    • billgamesh says:

      I walked through a lava tube up around Redding, in Northern California, a couple decades ago. Obsidian is tough stuff. The only purpose for visiting “hundreds of lava tubes” in my view would be to look for the ones that provide shelter. Of course they are interesting to geologists like Dr. Spudis but unless they find lunites scrambling around I doubt such intensive exploration would be funded.


      This was a really amazing story that did not get much press at all. Why is that? You would think it would have been all over the mainstream news. Could it have something to do with the NASA ban on talking about the Moon? Yathink?

      The SLS can get worthwhile payloads to the Moon. There is evidence of hundreds of millions of tons of water ice at the lunar poles. There is a high probability of volatiles trapped in that ice. There is also a possibility of immense ready-made radiation sanctuaries. If you have sports-arena-size lava tubes you don’t need to use H-bombs to excavate such habitats- they are sitting there waiting. We just have to find them and move in. That much room and water and volatiles means farming and that means a permanent self-sustaining colony. The remaining problem is hypogravity which means permanent lunar residents may not be practical unless they spend half their time (more or less) in spinning apartment structures- giant doughnuts generating Earth gravity. And having these square miles of underground sanctuary available make these circular “sleeper trains” much easier to build.

      The dead end of LEO should be abandoned as well as the “horizon goal” of Mars. That we continue to pour billions into LEO operations and have crippled the SLS program can be traced to that one privately owned company whose CEO made a campaign contribution 8 years ago. The worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

      • billgamesh says:

        I would add that if Luna Cities are established in miles in diameter lava tubes the most critical skilled people will be in the field of biology. The closed ecosystem means growing food (and air along with it) and keeping pathogens in check will be the top priority above almost all others. In my view the ideal semi-permanent resident of the Moon will be a 23 to 33 year old female biologist. Younger females (and sperm banks) are the best people to send off world in case the world as we know it suddenly ceases to exist due to an engineered pandemic or super-impact. Because of the reproductive mission there must be a strict radiation shielding requirement. Since such a city will take a couple decades to build our future-Moon-girl-tree-huggers are babies or yet to be born.

  6. gbaikie says:

    “Sub-orbital “hops” (ballistic flights from point-to-point) are possible, but come at fairly high cost—it takes nearly as much energy to fly hundreds of kilometers on the Moon in a ballistic hop as it does to go into orbit and then descend elsewhere.”

    Is this true and why is it true.
    One could say the same with earth and sub-orbital flight- and it has been said.
    The main reason it’s true has to do with gravity loss.
    Hovering at one moon gravity of 1.62 m/s/s for 60 seconds is 97.2 m/s of delta-v
    Add with steering one easily have 100 m/s per minute.
    And hovering goes nowhere unless you are already going fast.
    And with earth hovering 9.8 over 60 seconds costs 588 m/s.
    So roughly a minute on earth or the moon is 1/15th the delta-v needed
    to reach orbit.
    So if going to hover for 5 mins one is getting close to cost to reach orbit.
    Next part is there is speed limit to orbit Moon or Earth. Obviously the escape
    velocity is highest possible/practical speed limit. But to make a simple approx,
    one can say 1/2 escape velocity is about as fast as possible for sub-orbial travel.
    So faster you go more distance travelled with less hovering.
    So half of earth escape is 5.5 and with moon it’s 1.2 km/sec.
    So in a minute at 1.2 one travels 72 km
    and with earth at 5.5 it is 330 km.
    So you might conclude that further than about 500 km on Earth and 100 km on the
    moon becomes less practical.
    One could just say that going just 100 km on the Moon is what you want- as the
    polar region is quite small- 30 km per degree of latitude. If had depot in middle and
    traveled 90 km out from this focus point, you covering that polar region.

    But anyhow say you want to go further than 500 km on Earth and further than 100 km
    on the Moon. So to do this one needs something that reduces the gravity loss.
    And one of the function of two or more stage rocket is to reduce gravity loss.
    Or one could flip this around and say, the Moon and Mars because they low gravity
    world don’t really need a two stage rocket to gain orbit, whereas with Earth with it’s
    higher gravity it’s more of a necessity to use 2 or more stages.
    But this does not mean you can’t use two stage rockets on Mars and the Moon.
    And would say if you doing something which involves gravity
    loss on Mars or the Moon, you should use a second stage [or something like it].
    The problem with something like it in regards to the moon- is it could get complicated/risky.
    With Earth something like it, can be using a mothership, at Virgin Galactic is doing and has
    future plans of going further than 500 km. Or first do the up and down but later go for lateral
    distance, starting with perhaps going a far as 500 km.
    But with moon a similar mothership is impossible, but simplest solution is using a first stage rocket which may or may not be recoverable. Next simplest solution could involve using something like a cannon as the boost stage. Or modern artillery, fires a shell which can use rocket propulsion. Or simply use a mortar with a “second stage” rather than the warhead. So a mortar can go 5 km on Earth and goes much further on the Moon, and second stage makes it go further and possible have landing which is soft, or crash, or hard landing [resembles a crash but intended to survive the landing]. So obviously an advantage of cannon/mortar is you can easily re-use “the boost
    stage”. And advantage of rocket is you go slower, lower, and change vector of the trajectory.

    And you can combine mortar, first stage rocket, and “spacecraft. So instead firing mortar at 45 degree for max distance, you angle it at say 30 degree, first stage continue at 30 degree, and ends up burning at say 45 degree before separating with “spacecraft” and spacecraft continues to hover and/or lands.

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