Flying a Robot Into the Volcanoes on the Dark Side of the Moon

NASA is building drones to mine remote lunar and Martian regions.

NASA / Swamp Works

Really, there’s only one way to find out if the extinct volcanoes on the dark side of the moon are full of gold. Just deploy a special drone—one that can charge its own batteries, figure out where to go without GPS, and fly through airless voids. Too easy.

NASA engineers are designing a flying “prospecting robot” designed to travel to remote regions of the moon and Mars to scoop up soil samples for detecting minerals and other resources. (Not just gold, but also silver, mercury, and water—all of which have already been detected on the lunar surface—and other rare minerals.)

“The first step in being able to use resources on Mars or an asteroid is to find out where the resources are,” said Rob Mueller, a senior technologist at NASA, in a statement. “They are most likely in hard-to-access areas where there is permanent shadow. Some of the crater walls are angled 30 degrees or more, and that’s far too steep for a traditional rover to navigate and climb.”

This is no ordinary drone, either. According to NASA, the robot must meet specifications that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. Engineers are relying on advances in autonomous flight, laser-guidance, mapping, and 3-D printing to build a prototype. “If that sounds a lot like a job for a quad-copter, it kind of is,” Steve Siceloff wrote for NASA’s website. “On other worlds, though, the machine would require very large rotors since the atmosphere on Mars is thin and there is no air on an asteroid or the moon. Also, the flyer would have to operate autonomously, figuring out on its own where it is and where it is going since there is no GPS to help it navigate and the communications delays are too large to control it directly from Earth.”

Other remote spots the drone might explore include lunar and Martian lava tubes. Scientists believe volcanic activity on the moon petered out around 100 million years ago, about the time when dinosaurs were roaming on Earth.