Moon's best friend: Robot dogs could be future lunar explorers

red robot with a rock at the left, on a simulated plain of regolith
LEAP (Legged Exploration of the Aristarchus Plateau) is one dogged idea to explore the moon in the future. (Image credit: ETH Zürich/Robotics Systems Labs (RSL))

Future lunar explorers may not only be barking at the moon, but digging for scientific answers.

Dog-shaped robots may be used on future moon missions, as humanity's best friend is an agile explorer already. Leaping, digging and exploring elevated terrain are all things dogs eagerly do on Earth

Now, researchers hope to replicate that agility on the moon for the NASA-led Artemis program that could land astronauts later in the 2020s.

The robot dog concept is called LEAP, or Legged Exploration of the Aristarchus Plateau; Aristarchus is one of the moon's regions that the European Space Agency or ESA (which is funding the project) hopes to explore before too long.

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"With the robot, we can investigate key features to study the geologic history and evolution of the moon, like the ejecta around craters, fresh impact sites, and collapsed lava tubes, where material may not have been altered by space weathering and other processes," Patrick Bambach, an engineer at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, said in a statement.

The dog-like robot may ride on the surface of ESA's European Large Logistics Lander (EL3), which is tasked to send payloads and experiments to the moon's surface starting in the late 2020s. The dog shape is based on a legged robot called ANYmal that was developed at ETH Zürich and its spinoff ANYbotics. 

Between ANYmal's varied gaits, ability to flip back up if it falls and its agility at climbing steep slopes, this is lunar exploring as we've never envisioned it. ANYmal can even dig channels in the soil or use its legs to flip rocks over to see what's underneath.

Related: Meet Au-Spot, the AI robot dog that's training to explore caves on Mars

The LEAP rover is based on the legged robot, ANYmal, developed at ETH Zürich and its spin-off ANYbotics. (Image credit: ETH Zürich/ETH Zürich/Robotics System Lab (RSL))

"Traditional rovers have enabled great discoveries on the moon and Mars, but have limitations," Bambach said. "Exploring terrain with loose soil, large boulders or slopes over 15 degrees are particularly challenging with wheels. For example, the Mars rover, Spirit, had its mission terminated when it got stuck in sand."

The research is still early-stage, but so far, the team has deployed the robot in a virtual environment meant to simulate a moon-like surface, along with gravity and just properties. The dog was also taken, naturally, for a walk outdoors. 

Researchers were surprised at just how smart the robot has been in its early tests. On the moon-like surface, where gravity is just one-sixth that of Earth, "ANYmal started to use a jumping-like mode of locomotion, just as the Apollo astronauts did — realizing that jumping can be more energy efficient than walking," said Bambach.

When complete, the team hopes the robot dog will be less than 110 pounds (50 kg) in mass, with one-fifth of that being scientific payloads. AnyMAL will be asked to carry anything from multispectral sensors, radar to see beneath the ground, to spectrometers to assess the composition of rocks nearby. The first flight date has not yet been announced.

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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: