A dream has come true for a team of young space engineers. They are going to the Moon! To be more precise: their radio demonstrator “Celestial,” which enables communication “behind the Moon” using lunar communication infrastructure, is. The demonstrator is the product of a practical project in the Master of Space Engineering (MSE) program at TU Berlin. Together with two other teams from Aachen and Warsaw, the TU team of specialists was initially selected in July 2020 for future space missions of the European Space Agency (ESA) and its possible participation in a future space mission scheduled foreseen to take place over 14 days in 2028 has now been confirmed after a review. The Celestial team is currently carrying out scientific preparations for this.
"When we started the Celestial project in 2018 during a hackathon at TU Berlin, we would never have believed that our idea would become reality so soon," says Mayank, a TU Berlin graduate and space engineer who is head of the project as well as the founder of the start-up "Celestial Space Technologies GmbH." Since then, he and his team have established a wide range of contacts with various actors in industry and science enabling them to professionally further develop the technology. "This success has made the team very happy after having worked so hard on it for so long."
The adventure began in March 2020. As part of the IGLUNA program coordinated by Space Innovation and supported by space experts, students were asked to apply with their ideas for the Moon mission. The TU Berlin team began to optimize their small satellite antenna systems and miniaturized communication system, which is based on SDR (Software Defined Radio) technology and can be used both in space and on Earth. On the academic side, the project is supervised by scientists Dr. Zizung Yoon, Dipl.-Ing. Cem Avsar and Manuel Ortega, M. Eng at the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "We regularly motivate and support our students to take part in the IGLUNA campaign," says Manuel Ortega, education manager of the international degree program. "This mentoring program pursues the goal of training future engineers in Europe while also promoting the vision of building a permanent lunar base and developing the necessary technologies, including robots, machines and infrastructures."
Ideas from the IGLUNA 2020 campaign were originally to be presented in a field demonstration in July 2020 in Switzerland. Instead, the demonstration was organized as an interactive presentation and live stream due to the pandemic. Finally, three teams were ultimately successful: Celestial (TU Berlin), AMPEX (RWTH Aachen) and SAMPLE (TU Warsaw) were requested to plan their lunar mission in more detail by December 2020. The three selected experiments include a module for the automated cultivation of plants, a device for the production of fibers from lunar regolith, and Celestial’s lunar communication system, which enables the transmission of radio signals even on the remote side of the Moon (through lunar orbiters). The planning of the three teams is organized under the joint project “SCALE Mission” (Sample Celestial Ampex Lunar Endeavor). SCALE should be carried out on board a lunar lander on the lunar surface. After completion of the Moon mission, the experiments are meant to be brought back to Earth. “Over the next few weeks and months, the collaboration between the teams will primarily focus on writing joint technical drafts and explanations for relevant conferences. Then cooperations for constructive development will follow”, says Mayank, whose team also includes Udit Kumar Sahoo (mission analyst and risk engineer) and Guhan Sandaramoorthy (communication and data engineer).
By December 2020, in the preparatory phase 0, the students defined, among other things, the operational concept, the schedule and the financing of the project in order to enable the ESA team of experts to assess the technical and strategic feasibility of the mission. The most suitable landing place on the Earth's satellite – a crater like "Shackleton", a sea like the "Oceanus Procellarum" or one of the lava hills, for example the "Marius Hills" – depends on this. The model of the lunar lander and the arrangement of the experiments and modules in and on it must be planned. The experimental set-ups must also be adapted to the technical limitations of the mission, such as Moon temperature or cosmic radiation. The year 2021 is dedicated to concept and technology development. This is followed by drafts, production, assembly, and test runs up to the rocket launch foreseen in 2028.
“One of the challenges is, of course, choosing a lander from several variants and arranging the modules. Our Celestial module must be placed in the upper area or on the upper deck to enable a better connection to the orbiter that orbits the Moon”, says Mayank. “The other two modules, SAMPLE and AMPEX, are more likely to be located below the deck on the left and right sides, both for stability and for their protection.” The suitability of the various orbiters also has to be checked. Some are already near the Moon, such as the Indian Chandrayaan-2 orbiter. Others will be launched in the foreseeable future, such as the Lunar Pathfinder, in which ESA is also involved, and which is expected to be in lunar orbit by 2022 or 2023. Mayank continues, "So there is still a lot of work ahead of us, in particular the search for financial sponsors."
The next generation of young engineers is already in the starting blocks for a new Moon mission. "For the IGLUNA 2021 campaign, we are currently working with the MSE students to develop an autonomous rover that breaks down and transports ice on the Moon and extracts hydrogen and oxygen for life support systems as well as rocket fuel," explains MSE scientist Manuel Ortega. “The aim is to be able to use the resource of the Moon ice as a sustainable source for future 'deep space missions'.” This project, named LUIEE for Lunar Ice Extraction & Electrolysis is under the supervision of professors and lecturers in the Master of Space Engineering program at TU Berlin. The aim of the program is to train system engineers who can meet the rapidly growing demands of the space industry in their future professional development. With its own mission control center and its expertise in small satellite construction, the TU Berlin Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is one of the world's leading universities in this field. “Our students particularly enjoy the opportunity to work on a practical project together with other students and scientists from all over the world.” Admission to the program is on a rolling basis.
Updated on March 3rd 2021
In the previous version we wrote that the IGLUNA programm is coordinated by ESA. That is not right. It is coordinated by Space Innovations and part of the ESA_Lab@ initiative, supported by space experts. Please excuse the mistake.