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FLOAT designed for moving on the Moon

Out There | June 24, 2024 | By:

Artist concept of a novel approach for transport on the moon. It was proposed by a 2024 NIAC Phase II awardee for possible future missions. Depiction is the lunar surface with planet Earth on the horizon. Image: Ethan Schaler.

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) 2024 Phase II awardee Ethan Schaler has proposed the first lunar railway system to provide reliable, autonomous and efficient payload transport on the Moon. The Flexible Levitation on a Track (FLOAT) system is a durable, long-life robotic transport system—a function that will be critical to the daily operations of a sustainable lunar base in the 2030’s. 

FLOAT supports concepts as envisioned in NASA’s Moon to Mars plan and mission, specifically, the Robotic Lunar Surface Operations 2 (RLSO2), intended to transport regolith mined for ISRU consumables (H2O, LOX, LH2) or construction; and to transport payloads around the lunar base and to and from landing zones or other outposts. 

The system uses unpowered magnetic robots that levitate over a 3-layer flexible film track, which includes a graphite layer that enables robots to passively float over tracks using diamagnetic levitation; a flex-circuit layer generates electromagnetic thrust to controllably propel robots along tracks; and an optional, thin-film, solar panel layer generates power for the base when in sunlight.

FLOAT robots have no moving parts and levitate over the track to minimize lunar dust abrasion and wear. Unlike conventional roads, railways, or cableways, these tracks unroll directly onto the lunar regolith to avoid major on-site construction. Individual FLOAT robots will be able to transport payloads of varying shape / size (>30 kg/m^2) at useful speeds (>0.5m/s), and a large-scale system will be capable of moving up to 100,000s kg of regolith/payload multiple kilometers per day. 

FLOAT will operate autonomously in the dusty, inhospitable lunar environment with minimal site preparation, and its network of tracks can be rolled-up and reconfigured over time to match evolving lunar base mission requirements.

In Phase 2, Schaler and his team will continue to retire risks related to the manufacture, deployment, control and long-term operation of meter-scale robots / km-scale tracks that support human exploration (HEO) activities on the Moon, by accomplishing the following key tasks:

  1. Design, manufacture and test a series of sub-scale robot/track prototypes, culminating with a demonstration in a lunar-analog testbed 
  2. Investigate impacts of environmental effects, such as temperature, radiation, charging, and lunar regolith simulant contamination on system performance and longevity
  3. Investigate and define a technology roadmap to address technology gaps and mature manufacturing capability for critical hardware, such as large-area magnetic arrays with mm-scale magnetic domains, and large-area flex-circuit boards.

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