Northrup Grumman is developing a project to build a railway on the moon

Northrup Grumman is developing a project to build a railway on the moon

Lunar railway network concept.

In about two years and six months, NASA’s Artemis III mission will see astronauts set foot on the lunar surface for the first time in fifty years. After this mission, NASA will deploy elements of the Lunar Gateway, the Artemis Base Camp, and other infrastructure that will allow for a “sustainable lunar exploration and development program.” They will be joined by the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and Roscosmos, the latter two of which are collaborating on the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

Anticipating (and seeking to facilitate) this lunar exploration process, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the 10-year Lunar Architecture Capability Study (LunA-10) last August. The agency recently announced that it had selected Northrop Grumman to develop a rail network on the moon. This network will be able to transport people, cargo and resources for space agencies and commercial enterprises, facilitating exploration, scientific research and the creation of a lunar economy.

According to a statement from DARPA, the seven-month LunA-10 study aims to create “an analytical framework that identifies new opportunities for rapid scientific and commercial activities on and around the Moon.” It is also designed to facilitate the development of basic technologies to optimize the lunar infrastructure, allowing space agencies to move away from individual efforts within isolated, self-sufficient systems and toward shared, scalable, resource-oriented systems that can work together. Consistent with NASA’s long-term goals, this work will complement the goals of the administration’s Moon to Mars project.

Artistic reconstruction of construction on the moon.

Simply put, the plan is to develop technologies that will allow space agencies and companies to access each other’s resources, facilities and information to facilitate further growth. The tender identifies several key sectors to be developed into services to support a long-term presence on the Moon, based on an independent market analysis of the future lunar economy. These include construction, mining, transit, energy, agriculture, and scientific research (such as medicine, robotics, and life support) that will have applications to space exploration and life on Earth.

Other aspects include lunar and planetary sciences, communications, digital infrastructure, and positioning, navigation and synchronization (PNT) technologies. Dr. Michael “Orbit” Nayak, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technologies Division, spoke about DARPA’s long history of collaboration with NASA during last year’s announcement:

“For 65 years, DARPA has pioneered and de-risked technologies vital to the development of civilian space, from the rocket technology in the Saturn V that first landed humans on the moon, to the recent DARPA-NASA partnership that will accelerate spaceflight to the moon and beyond using a nuclear thermal rocket engine.

“LunA-10 continues this rich legacy by identifying and accelerating key technologies that can be used by the government and commercial space industry, and ultimately catalyze economic prosperity on the Moon. Just as the core ARPANET node created by DARPA has grown into the sprawling Internet, LunA-10 is looking for the footholds that will support a thriving commercial economy on the Moon.”

As part of this 10-year plan, Northrop Grumman will be tasked with creating the infrastructure that will physically connect lunar sites and allow people and resources to be moved there and back. Their responsibilities, as outlined in the contract, include defining the interfaces and resources needed to build a lunar rail network; identification of cost, technological and logistical risks; prototyping, demonstrating and analyzing conceptual design and architecture, and exploring robotics concepts for system construction and operation.

These robotic concepts must be able to operate on the lunar surface and perform specific tasks such as grading and foundation preparation, path laying and leveling, jointing and finishing, inspection, maintenance and repair. Chris Adams, vice president and general manager of strategic space systems at Northrop Grumman, said:

“This investment in key research and development enables our technology to remain at the forefront of next-generation solutions. With our expertise in integrating complex systems and commercializing autonomous services, we will continue to create long-term change for a sustainable space ecosystem.”

Northrop Grumman and other bidders will receive an “Other Deal” award of up to $1 million. They will present their work at the Spring Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium (LSIC) meeting in April 2024 and provide a final report in June 2024.

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