Can Robots Build a Moon Base for Astronauts? Japan Hopes to Find Out.

A moon base could be constructed remotely.
A moon base could be constructed remotely. (Image credit: JAXA)

Japan's space agency wants to create a moon base with the help of robots that can work autonomously, with little human supervision.

The project, which has racked up three years of research so far, is a collaboration between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the construction company Kajima Corp., and three Japanese universities: Shibaura Institute of Technology, The University of Electro-Communications and Kyoto University.

Recently, the collaboration did an experiment on automated construction at the Kajima Seisho Experiment Site in Odawara (central Japan). 

Related: Moon Base Visions: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Photos)

A moon base could be constructed remotely. (Image credit: JAXA)

A 7-ton autonomous backhoe went through its paces at the site, going through procedures such as driving a specified distance and repeating routine operations, JAXA officials said in a statement. Operations that required more fine handling were performed with a human, by remote control. 

"[The backhoe] has been modified with onboard survey instruments and an automatic operation control console. The instruments that the tractor and backhoe are installed with autonomously measure [the backhoe's] position and direction ... making it both remotely and automatically operable," JAXA officials said. 

"The operational process has shown feasibility of the unmanned technologies to build a lunar base," they added. 

The backhoe is equipped with a suite of technologies to help it work on its own at the moon, which is located about 2 seconds' radio distance away from Earth. In other words, any command sent from Earth would take about 2 seconds to arrive at the moon's surface. (The average distance between the Earth and the moon is about 239,000 miles, or 384,000 kilometers).

JAXA used this autonomously operated tractor to practice for someday remotely building a moon base. (Image credit: JAXA)

The backhoe has "operational support," including remote-control functions, that can help compensate for communication delays, JAXA officials said. It also has motion recognition capabilities adaptable to the lunar environment, and the ability to coordinate its work through multiple machines.

An autonomously operated backhoe, like this one used in a JAXA test, could someday help construct a moon base. (Image credit: JAXA)

Building a base for humans using remote, autonomous control will require site preparation work, excavation, installing the module, and then shielding it with moon dust (regolith) to protect humans from radiation and possible meteoroids, JAXA officials said. Meteoroids are grain-size or larger space rocks that travel through space at high speeds. If meteoroids strike a structure such as a space station or moon base, there's a risk of the oxygen inside the structure suddenly leaking out into space.

This isn't Japan's only futuristic lunar venture. In mid-March, JAXA announced it and vehicle manufacturer Toyota would create a moon rover to transport humans, which could launch by 2029. JAXA hopes to have its astronauts on the moon by 2030, according to Sky News, and its International Space Station partner, the United States, has similar ambitions.

Late last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tasked NASA with landing astronauts on the moon by the end of 2024, around the same time the ISS may be retired from government service. NASA is also designing a Lunar Gateway space station for operations in the 2020s. In March, Canada was the first space station partner to commit to joining Gateway; it will construct an autonomous robotic arm called Canadarm3.

The year 2019 marks the 50th year since humans first walked on the moon. The actual date is July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent about 2 hours on foot exploring the moon's Sea of Tranquility.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: