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Colmena: Mexico’s mission to catapult robots onto the moon

While Mexico is party to the Artemis Accords, the mission to put people back on the moon by 2025, it is also forging ahead with its own lunar project, Colmena, to prove that it can play a role in the coming exploration of the solar system.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — As the world gears up to watch NASA’s return to the moon with the first launch of the Artemis program next week, Mexico is moving forward with its mission to put robots on the lunar surface later this year. 

The Artemis program aims to put astronauts back on the moon by 2025, the next giant step in space exploration on humanity’s way to Mars. The Colmena (Hive) program is Mexico’s way of getting in on the action.

“This window will only be open a few short years,” said Gustavo Medina Tanco, head of LINX — the laboratory at Mexico’s National Autonomous University that designed the Colmena robots. 

“If we don’t take measures to do this now, we’ll unfortunately end up consumers of the new services that come out of this next stage of space exploration, rather than producers,” he said.

Medina described the current landscape of space exploration and exploitation in terms that Earthlings who experienced the digital revolution of the Internet can easily understand. Mexico wants to get its foot in the door before the Googles and Facebooks of space exploration gobble everything up.

Models of the robots the Colmena mission will send to the moon fit in the palm of Dr. Medina's hands as he displays them in the LINX laboratory on the campus of Mexico's National Autonomous University. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“Those who arrive first arrive small, but right away they grow exponentially into giants and then close the door behind them,” he said. “That’s what’s going to happen in space.”

Colmena consists of five tiny, two-wheeled robots weighing just two ounces and measuring less than five inches in diameter. These will be set into an innovative catapult device aboard a commercial lander named Peregrine, operated by the Pittsburg-based lunar logistics company Astrobotic

The robots’ scientific mission is to study the features and composition of lunar regolith, the moon’s soil. This presented the first of several unique challenges to Medina and his team. 

Lunar regolith ranges from visible dust grains to particles measuring mere nanometers across, and the ultraviolet rays from the sun charge this dust with electrostatic energy, creating a cloud of plasma that floats up to around a foot off the lunar surface. 

“When we put rovers or astronauts on the moon, all this is at their wheels or their feet, but our little robots are only two centimeters tall,” said Medina. “This means that they live in this cloud of regolith, a completely different environment. No one has done this before, and this changes everything.”

Thus, his team could not simply take a big robot and make it smaller. They had to completely rethink the technology they planned to send, designing systems that would not be damaged by this “almost liquid” cloud of regolith. 

Dr. Medina discusses the Colmena project with student Juan Carlos Sánchez in the LINX laboratory. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

However, the real challenge was figuring out how to do this on a shoestring. The Mexican Space Agency does not have the astronomical budget of a program like NASA, but by designing the robots for one specific purpose, they were able to save a lot of money compared to traditional space exploration materials.

“Lower costs allow you to completely change your work philosophy and run risks,” said Medina. “So instead of making things hurricane-proof, I’m going to certify things only for the exact purpose I want them to perform. I’m going to use this component that is for use on Earth, and if it fails, my costs were a thousand or a hundred times less, and I’ll just make another one, and it’ll still be much cheaper. It allows you to totally change how you think and act.”

For Medina’s students, seeing their tiny robots scurry through the lunar regolith will be the culmination of a series of exciting achievements. 

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“Eight years ago, we weren’t even thinking about the moon, now to have it so tangible, the mission to send something up there just around the corner, it’s going to be very exciting,” said Juan Carlos Sánchez, a master’s student working on Colmena. 

“You see it, and it’s real, the things that you dream are finally real,” he said. “I think many of us had dreams as kids, and we haven’t let those dreams die, but kept working on them. We’ll never lose them.”

The team at Astrobotic was impressed by the uniqueness of the science behind Colmena. Senior payload systems engineer Jodi Coletti said it has been fun to work with Medina’s team.

The Peregrine lunar lander, which will take Colmena and 19 other payloads to the moon later this year, awaits final testing and other finishing touches in Astrobotic's facilities in Pittsburg. (Astrobotic)

“Some of their science has been really interesting, because they didn’t have as much money as some of the other big space companies,” said Coletti. “The things that they came up with that worked really well were just much more simple. Sometimes if you have more money, you think more complicated, just because you can.”

And therein lies the real goal of Colmena. While Medina and his team of creative engineers are definitely interested in the readings the robots’ sensors will take, their ultimate purpose is to show what Mexico’s space program is capable of doing.

The Colmena mission is Mexico’s way of getting its foot in the door during a moment of space exploration that is “quite a bit of a free-for-all right now,” according to Walter Harris, chief scientist at the Arizona Space Institute at the University of Arizona.

While low-Earth and geosynchronous orbits have been commercialized for some decades now, the next step of sending commercial spacecraft to the moon and beyond is “unquestionably very new,” Harris said. “It’s really an exciting time. There are a lot of different approaches that people are taking.”

In 1979, several governments signed what is known as the Moon Agreement, which stipulates that lunar activities be governed by international law. But there were three notable exceptions. The only countries to have ever operated on the lunar surface — the United States, Russia and China — are non-parties. 

An engineer displays the Colmena robots set in the catapult apparatus that will toss the little rovers onto the lunar surface. (LINX laboratory)

For Medina, treaties like this and the Artemis Accords (Mexico is a party to both) are important, but they are also mere political acts. 

“At the international level, there are no laws,” he said. “It’s basically survival of the fittest, whether we like it or not. And what power would we have to influence legal regulation if we’re just doing dialectical exercises? None. You have to go there and be an actor. When you do that, you have the chance to influence it.”

Colmena is poised to prove that Mexico can do more in space than sign treaties on Earth. 

“Mexico is a champion of signing papers, but we have already been developing a mission that is ready to go now, the first in a series of missions,” said Medina. “We have a plan, so we can participate with technology.”

Future missions will involve sending even larger “hives” of robots. Medina imagines a million tiny, simple robots coming together to perform complicated tasks like mining asteroids, similar to how hives of bees or colonies of ants — each a very simple individual unit — come together to achieve more than the sum of their parts. 

“Bees, ants, worms — these are the great modifiers of the planet,” Medina said. “And if you look at a single individual, no one of them is tremendously intelligent or sophisticated. Each is fine-tuned to perform a specific task. But they are extremely efficient at what they do.”

Such design avoids a single-point failure. If one large, sophisticated and expensive robot fails, it can tank an entire mission. But if a mission of a million tiny robots loses 100,000, the other 900,000 can still carry out their function.

“There’s no boss, they self-organize,” Medina said. “So it may take longer, but the mission hasn’t failed.”

Dr. Medina and his team at the LINX laboratory pose for a photo around the catapult apparatus that will launch the Colmena robots onto the moon later this year. (LINX laboratory)

The success of Colmena is not only of serious importance to Medina and his team, or even to Mexico’s space program, but to the country as a whole. It’s about planting the seeds of prosperity for the country’s overall future. 

“What tends to happen in emerging economy countries, whether it be with good or bad intentions, is that they only focus on problems of the present,” Medina said. “If you only focus all your efforts and all your financial resources on solving problems of the present, you’re never going to solve them, because you don’t have the resources to do so.”

That’s why Mexico must take advantage of the current window of opportunity before it closes for good.

“This isn’t your average moment, historically speaking,” he said. “We’re at a watershed moment in our social evolution. So if you don’t make these decisions now, you will probably lose your chance to make them.”

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton also recognized the importance of Colmena to Mexico and said that he and his company are proud to be a part of the mission.

"Mexico could be the fourth nation after China to operate on the surface of the moon with our mission," said Thornton. "And we're very excited and honored to be a part of that historic moment for them as a nation."

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