MIT engineers test idea to keep rovers in the air with the moon’s natural charge

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Aerospace engineers are always looking for newer ways to aid their experiments on extraterrestrial bodies like the moon and asteroids. One of the main obstacles to their work is the lack of energy sources to use a device for a long period of time. So MIT researchers are trying a new concept to use the moon’s natural charge to keep the rovers in the air. Without an atmosphere, the moon and asteroids build up an electric field through direct solar radiation. On the moon, this strong surface charge can cause dust to float more than three feet above the ground.

This works in the same way that static electricity makes human hair stand up.

Engineers from NASA and other such space agencies recently proposed using the moon’s natural charge to levitate a glider whose wings would be constructed from mylar, which holds the same charge as surfaces on airless bodies. Their concept is based on the proven theory that similarly charged surfaces can repel each other and the screen would stay in the air.

But there is a problem: A larger planetary body would have a stronger force of attraction that could act as a counterforce and cause the glider to crash.

To solve this problem, MIT engineers thought of using tiny ion beams to increase the charge on the vehicle and also increase the repulsive charge on the surface. They did an initial feasibility study and built a retro-style disc-shaped flying saucer. The study, published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, concluded that the ion thrust should be strong enough to cause a two-pound object to float on the moon and lunar-like asteroids.

“With a hovering rover, you don’t have to worry about wheels or moving parts,” says Paulo Lozano, co-author of the study. About the topography of an asteroid, Lozano said that it could be very bumpy, but as long as there is a controlled system to keep the rover floating, it can travel over very rough, unexplored areas without physically avoiding the asteroid.

The engineers used thrusters to emit positive ions to increase the surface charge and levitate the glider off the ground. Their model predicted that a small rover weighing two pounds could take off and float three feet above the ground on a large asteroid with a 10 kV ion source. But on the moon, the same rover would need a 50 kV source. This research was supported by NASA.

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