MIT aerospace engineers are testing a concept for a hovering rover that levitates by harnessing the moon’s natural charge. This illustration shows a concept image of rover.
By Jennifer Chu for MIT News
Aerospace engineers at MIT are testing a new concept for a hovering rover that levitates by harnessing the moon’s natural charge.
Because they lack an atmosphere, the moon and other airless bodies such as asteroids can build up an electric field through direct exposure to the sun and surrounding plasma. On the moon, this surface charge is strong enough to levitate dust more than 1 meter above the ground, much the way static electricity can cause a person’s hair to stand on end.
Engineers at NASA and elsewhere have recently proposed harnessing this natural surface charge to levitate a glider with wings made of Mylar, a material that naturally holds the same charge as surfaces on airless bodies. They reasoned that the similarly charged surfaces should repel each other, with a force that lofts the glider off the ground. But such a design would likely be limited to small asteroids, as larger planetary bodies would have a stronger, counteracting gravitational pull.
The MIT team’s levitating rover could potentially get around this size limitation. The concept, which resembles a retro-style, disc-shaped flying saucer, uses tiny ion beams to both charge up the vehicle and boost the surface’s natural charge. The overall effect is designed to generate a relatively large repulsive force between the vehicle and the ground, in a way that requires very little power. In an initial feasibility study, the researchers show that such an ion boost should be strong enough to levitate a small, 2-pound vehicle on the moon and large asteroids like Psyche.
“We think of using this like the Hayabusa missions that were launched by the Japanese space agency,” says lead author Oliver Jia-Richards, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “That spacecraft operated around a small asteroid and deployed small rovers to its surface. Similarly, we think a future mission could send out small hovering rovers to explore the surface of the moon and other asteroids.”
The team’s results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. Jia-Richards’ co-authors are Paulo Lozano, the M. Aleman-Velasco Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of MIT’s Space Propulsion Lab; and former visiting student Sebastian Hampl, now at McGill University.
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