Exploring the unknown
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)
In Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi blockbuster “Alien: Covenant”, a small vehicle made by Audi caused a stir. The Audi lunar quattro is a rover used to navigate and explore the terrain of foreign planets, gathering data for the team aboard the “Covenant” colonisation ship. In the meantime, a real trip to the moon is on the horizon for the Audi lunar quattro, which will cause a stir beyond Hollywood’s borders. Audi has supported the Part-Time Scientists (PTScientists) start-up from Berlin since 2015. Their common goal for 2018 is the “Mission to the Moon”, to explore earth’s only natural satellite, the moon.
PTScientists aim to be the first private company to explore the “eighth continent”. What was previously only accomplished by state space agencies with hordes of employees and budgets running into the billions shall in future also be attainable for small and dynamic high tech companies: lunar missions. If they succeed, it will be the next large space travel revolution after the American Apollo missions, and PTScientists would write human and technology history together with their partners. The ambitious company has developed new technologies, including a version of the Audi lunar quattro which is designed to travel across difficult terrain and carry out various tests on the moon.
We spoke to Karsten Becker, who is responsible for the development of electronics at PTScientists, about the undiscovered expanses of space and the development of the little rover which aims to pave the way for future economic solutions with which to explore and develop the moon.
Why is the moon such a special celestial body to us?
I think it’s because we can always see it, even without a telescope. It also influences a lot of things on earth. Moths use it to navigate, there are high and low tides, amazing things happen during a full moon, our calendar month is aligned with the moon. Sometimes it seems so close you could almost jump across to it.
Did you always want to fly to the moon when you were a little boy?
The moon is undeniably interesting. But before Part-Time Scientists, I always thought it was just a large dusty sphere. I actually thought Mars was more exciting. I only became enthusiastic about the moon once I understood that it is a diving board into outer space.
Where does the name “Part-Time Scientists” come from? Do the engineers and employees have other jobs and only work as scientists part time?
That’s how it was at the start. For example, I was a research assistant at the Hamburg University of Technology where I did research. Although at the time I was already spending almost all my time on PTScientists and I was more of a full-time Part-Time Scientist. Other members also had their day jobs, but in the evenings they then became the Part-Time Scientists who are working on a lunar mission. But now we all do this full time, and the “Part-Time Scientists” became the PTScientists.
“Mission to the Moon” is the first private lunar mission by PTScientists and their partners Audi and Vodafone. What exactly is its aim?
Our first mission is primarily about showing that it’s also possible to fly a non-governmental mission to the moon. No commercial object has left the earth’s orbit before, but that’s exactly what we want to do. We want to fly to the moon, land there safely and show that you can achieve something like that as a company. At the same time, we want to test the infrastructure for future missions. We are therefore setting up the first LTE network outside of earth with Vodafone, a milestone on the road to an interplanetary species.
The Audi lunar quattro is an important participant of the “Mission to the Moon”. How did the cooperation with Audi come about?
Audi is a very innovative company. Supporting a lunar mission, especially a private one, is pure innovation. The moon is one of the most challenging environments imaginable. Audi wants to demonstrate that its Quattro technology can also generate optimum drive on the moon. Audi is also presenting its expertise in the field of lightweight design through 3D aluminium printing and e-mobility.
We’ve already seen the Audi lunar quattro in action in the blockbuster film “Alien: Covenant”. Was the representation of the rover’s abilities in the film realistic?
The rover that was used in the film was one of our prototypes. It works brilliantly on difficult terrain, be it here on earth or on an earth-like planet. Some creative freedom was taken with its diagnosis function, however.
What exactly is the rover meant to do on the moon’s surface during the real mission?
We want to return to Apollo 17 on the moon and inspect the Apollo 17 landing site with our cameras. We will land approximately four to five kilometres away from Apollo 17 to ensure we don’t destroy the historic landing site. We want to take a closer look at the lunar rover of the Apollo astronauts in particular. But we also want to test technology such as the LTE data connection on the moon. We will also carry out a few experiments on our spacecraft ALINA.
What is the moon’s surface like? Has the rover been specially designed for it and were these conditions taken into account?
We’ve of course tested the rover extensively on our test bed. We replicated the supporting layer below the moon dust with Eiffel lava. We chose the Apollo 17 landing site because there are a large number of images of it and it is relatively flat. This makes the landing much easier and also makes driving around and navigating simpler.
How does the Audi lunar quattro now need to be developed by the PTScientists in order for it to successfully complete its mission?
At the moment, the rover still uses Bluetooth for communication. First and foremost, we now need to integrate Vodafone’s LTE and make a few small improvements. But in principle it’s ready. We won’t send up our test model to the moon however, instead we will build two new rovers.
Extreme conditions prevail on the moon. Large temperature variations are just one of the burdens to the material and technology. What do you need to take into consideration when designing the vehicle?
The surface temperature during the day can go up to 120 degrees celsius, but in the darkness it falls down to below -180 degrees celsius. No manufacturer can guarantee this temperature range, which is why we are restricting ourselves to surviving in the sun for our first mission and hoping that we can also survive the lunar night. But we won’t find out whether it’s worked until two weeks later, because that’s how long the lunar night lasts, and during this time we won’t have any light, and therefore no solar power.
Just like PTScientists, the “Mission to the Moon” is a private company that has to finance itself somehow. Where is investment for the mission coming from?
Here you have to distinguish between our first mission and the subsequent ones. We are still relying heavily on sponsors and investors during the first mission. The next missions will be financed through payloads, meaning a company, university or space agency buys cargo load off us which we then take to the moon. This is one of our main pillars as a company, we want to offer infrastructure in outer space. This includes communication infrastructure besides merely transporting payloads, as we will be demonstrating during the first mission with Vodafone.
What could a successful mission signify for the future of our industry?
Space travel is always an investment in education and science. The long-term goal is to establish a permanent base on the moon. This will require a lot of know-how, and a lot of things have to be adapted to the harsh conditions on the moon, because we have to be completely self-sufficient there. But ultimately, we will also benefit from that here on earth.
What is the mission’s current schedule? When will the Audi lunar quattro actually land on the moon?
The plan is for us to start in mid to late 2018. But we will take all the time we need to ensure we arrive safely on the moon.
Could you personally imagine a future on the moon?
I would like to go to the moon sometime, but not in a rocket. Rockets are just controlled explosions and I start feeling ill as soon as there’s a bit too much turbulence on an airplane. But I would really like to experience reduced gravity one day. And I would especially like to stand in front of a rover with my son one day and say “look, Dad sent that up there 30 years ago!”.
After Karsten Becker finished his Master of Science, he became a full-time scientist working on his PhD, working part-time for Part-Time Scientists. Once he was employed by PTScientists full time, he became Head of Electronics, where he is responsible for everything that blinks or moves. Karsten is the only person to hold a driver’s licence for the Audi lunar quattro, and was responsible for making it “act” during the filming of Ridley Scott’s ”Alien: Covenant“ movie.
Picture credit © PTScientists