Incredible Technology

Spiders on the Moon: 'Walking' Robots Will Explore Lunar Crevices and Caves

WASHINGTON – Spacebit's creepy-crawly robots could soon help explore the mysterious caves and lava tubes on the moon, according to the company's CEO. And the first test mission is expected to fly in 2021.

Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk made an energetic appearance before delegates at the International Astronautical Congress here on Oct. 24 in the wake of two major announcements from his company this month. On Oct. 10, Spacebit announced its plans to launch the United Kingdom's first privately built moon rover in 2021. Then on Oct. 23, the company entered a new partnership with the International Astronautical Federation Regional Group for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

This is all big news for a startup that is joining the rush of missions toward the moon, helped in no small part by NASA's pledge to land humans on the surface in 2024. NASA is already encouraging private companies to participate through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, and other companies are coming aboard.

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Artist's illustration of Spacebit's small "walking rover," which is scheduled to launch toward the moon aboard Astrobotic's Peregrine lander in 2021.

Artist's illustration of Spacebit's small "walking rover," which is scheduled to launch toward the moon aboard Astrobotic's Peregrine lander in 2021. (Image credit: Spacebit)

Spacebit's offering is robots with legs, which would allow the machines to delve into cracks and crevices inaccessible to traditional space rovers. The mission design calls for a rover to bring as many as eight such robots to a drop-off point. Then they would leave the "mothership" and in a swarm, explore lunar caves using artificial intelligence to bring back more details about the moon's history. "We don't have wheels – we have four legs instead of the wheels – which is a very neat design" for this type of work, Tanasyuk said at the International Astronautical Conference on Oct. 24.

The London-based company intends to launch the first batch of these rovers together with Astrobotic's Peregrine moon lander, which is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket in July 2021. This would be the first mission for both the lander and the Vulcan Centaur rocket, so "we're really hoping they make the landing," Tanasyuk said. If this goes according to plan, Peregrine's landing will make it possible for Spacebit to achieve its own exploration "first" – to be the company that sends the first legged robot to explore another world.

Spacebit's spider-like moon rovers crawl on the moon in this still image from an animation of the robots. (Image credit: Spacebit)

Tanasyuk has a larger vision to make space exploration more accessible. Spacebit's robots are built on a single-unit cubesat frame that is usually used for tiny satellites. Individual robots only weigh a bit more than 3 lbs. (1.5 kilograms) each, which is an order of magnitude less massive than the Chinese Yutu rover at 265 lbs. (120 kg).

The robots, which cost $3 million each, are expected to be built in only six to 12 months (which is much more rapid than the traditional years-long schedule of spacecraft construction). "We could have multiple rovers exploring the moon, and [its] lava tubes, and even going beyond in the future," Tanasyuk said.

His plans for the business include selling the technology to interested customers, including universities and other space agencies. With the missions using standardized equipment and off-the-shelf components, Tanasyuk added, space exploration will be more affordable, and that will encourage more entities to fly to the moon. "After 50 years' absence of humans on the moon, I believe that robotic missions will play a very major role in our comeback," he said.

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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: