Colmena Project: Simulated lunar dust and with 250 students: First robots to explore deep space created at UNAM

A beehive disintegrated in space with the ashes of three US presidents. Eisenhower, along with Washington and Kennedy, was the last great Mexican invention. He was cremated on Thursday. That ship Pilgrim It collided with Earth's atmosphere due to a decision by the Astrobotic Institute in charge of the project to prevent the module from becoming space debris. The mission started from Cape Canaveral, Florida (USA) and ended after a 10-day round trip to lunar orbit. The ship was unable to land on the satellite due to a fuel leak, but it allowed five small robots to become the first Mexican device to reach deep space. Their journey inspires others.

There is no sense of failure at the UNAM Space Instrument Laboratory. On the contrary: turning bachelor's, master's and doctoral theses, social services and university internships into real work is what 250 students led by researcher Gustavo Medina have achieved. Nine years ago, in the rooms of the Institute of Atomic Sciences, the plan that would lead to the survival of five cookie-sized robots 385,000 kilometers from Earth began to take shape.

The 3D printer that created the robots works in the lab, a capsule that allowed them to emulate the vacuum of space and bring devices to temperatures of 120 degrees and minus 120 degrees, a clean room where components were tested without contamination. . It was here that the Colemena team carried out the main experiments, and it was here that all previous ones that reached space broke down and were damaged. David Padilla, an industrial engineering student who has been involved in the project for six years and is finishing his PhD on space debris, explains that one of the challenges is to withstand the vibration and acceleration that shakes the ship as the rocket takes off. Apart from temperature variation, pressure changes, solar radiation, which appear in the interplanetary medium. Space is not easy.

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Robots developed by the LINX project on a simulated lunar dust surface. Nayeli Cruz

In this room with students, in a transparent box, four robots rest on simulated lunar dust. Since the end goal of the devices was to move on the Moon, the UNAM team began to build regolith. They produced two types: a simple 16-ton powder they received from a mining company, using basalt and lava from Maling, “which looks like part of the moon,” and a very fine one, of which there are only a few. Kilograms. “Eight people were there for six months: they tried to reproduce what part of the grains of each size in the dust of the lunar regolith,” explains Gustavo Medina to EL PAÍS.

Another classroom has a section Pilgrim Actual size. Reproduced with aluminum foil and a few replicas, it presides over the design room between eclipse formulas on blackboards and Colemena advertising posters. The robots, known as TTDM, and their control module went into space along with 21 other projects. Along with two NASA spectrometers, the ship carried a German radiation detector, a Japanese time capsule containing 80,000 children's messages from around the world, a piece of Mount Everest, a bitcoin from the Seychelles and a vehicle. Round from Carnegie Mellon University. Pilgrim It is a kind of mail service to the moon.

In the early hours of January 8, the private venture aimed at launching a commercial satellite transport industry took off successfully. “The feeling is indescribable,” says Claudia Patrizio, a mechanical engineering student and in the Colmena project since 2019, “this is the moment when all the teamwork in the lab is implemented and validated.” However, a problem with a small valve caused one of the fuel tanks to explode. The Astrobotics team lost control of the module for several hours and had to use a lot of fuel to recover it and stabilize the ship. Not enough for a three-week trip and a smooth, powered landing on the moon.

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Full size model of Peregrino. Nayeli Cruz

Even so, the company decided to reach lunar orbit so that crews aboard could test their components outside the influence of Earth's magnetic field. “We had to propose a new strategy for ourselves. We started doing things we had never planned in deep space, an extremely aggressive environment that is very similar to the surface of the moon, except for the dust,” Medina says, “and we turned on our electronics. That's easy to say. , but there You're immersing yourself in a medium called plasma, a completely conductive gas that can deliver an electric shock and incinerate you all in a millisecond.” They achieved it without any problems, which showed that the engineering of their robots was perfect.

A full survey of the lunar regolith is pending, a task that will be left to Colmena 2, scheduled for 2027. Even if the robots are completely different, they will already be ready to execute, for example, some mining operations, and the core they have already verified will be maintained. “At UNAM we plan at least three missions to the Moon, and then one to an asteroid. Colmena is the first in a series of lunar missions,” says the project manager.

The purpose behind these five microrobots is to participate in the great space race. Medina explains that the moon is “like a new continent about to be added to our civilization,” as if it were a sci-fi series. “It will be incorporated into our socioeconomic activities since the 1930s. There will be industry to build large scientific experiments and homes for astronauts and spacecraft that will eventually take us to Mars and the asteroids,” he says. Physicist.

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David Padilla, a member of the LINX team, works in one of the Institute's laboratories.Nayeli Cruz

In this revolution led by the United States, Russia, China, India and the European Union, Mexico does not want to be a mere spectator. So microrobots: the Mexican niche in the universe is tiny. That's because, according to Medina, autonomous machines will be among the first in that future lunar colony. The plan now is that the arrivals from Mexico will be small but many. Colemena did not come, but others would.

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