Credit: NASA

It is dubbed FLOAT, short for Flexible Levitation on a Track.

This concept is geared to build the first railway system on the Moon, one that provides reliable, autonomous, and around-the-clock payload transport across the lunar landscape.

Magnet robots

What’s envisioned is use of scads of unpowered, individually-controllable, meter-scale levitating magnet robots over a flexible track. Their task is to perform essential, but repetitive, transportation tasks between a lunar base, in-situ resource mining/refining sites, lunar landers, and other outposts.

JPL’s Ethan Schaler showcased the idea at the 2021 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium.

Credit: JPL/Ethan Schaler/NIAC

Flexible film track

Using the FLOAT, up to 240,000 kilograms a day of material could zip across 1 to 10 kilometers of hostile terrain.

Schaler said that this levitating proposal would counter existing lunar base transport concepts that require significant site preparation and substantial infrastructure, or consume operational life of sophisticated robots

FLOAT consists of unpowered magnetic robots that levitate over a 3-layer flexible film track, unrolled directly onto the lunar topside, requiring minimal preparation to avoid major on-site construction.

The thin-film solar panel generates power. The track’s graphite layer enables robots to passively float over tracks using diamagnetic levitation. The flex-circuit layer generates electromagnetic fields to controllably propel robots along tracks.

An added bonus is that the robots have no moving parts and support payload delivery from point to point.

Lunar temperature

“So the beauty of FLOAT is that we can actually operate at any lunar temperature, from approximately -170 degC in permanently shadowed craters to +130 degC in bright daylight,” Schaler told Inside Outer Space. Diamagnetism (which is the phenomenon used for levitation) is actually independent of temperature, he said, unlike levitation through flux pinning with superconductors (which have to be kept at very cold temperatures).

“Magnetic field strength does increase at lower temperatures, so hauling ice around (or out of) a permanently shadowed crater actually gets easier as we get colder, but our magnets will operate up to their Curie temperatures (roughly 320 degC) before becoming demagnetized,” Schaler said.

SRI International’s “Diamagnetic Micro Manipulation (DM3) system.”
Credit: SRI

Scaling up DM3 technology

FLOAT builds on SRI International’s “Diamagnetic Micro Manipulation (DM3) system,” Schaler said. The Moon-application concept scales up DM3 technology to meter-scale robots and km-scale tracks operating in the lunar environment.

SRI is developing DM3 technology to reliably control thousands of micro-robots for smart manufacturing of macro-scale products in compact, integrated systems.

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