Researchers and students at Tartu Observatory of the University of Tartu have started developing Estonia’s first Moon lander with the aim of bringing Estonian technology to the Moon – hopefully by the end of this decade or early in the next decade.
The first step is a feasibility study to find out what sort of lunar rover could be built in Estonia and realistically delivered to the surface of the Moon, and what are the interests of Estonian industry and scientists to test their technology on the Moon, the spokespeople for Tartu Observatory said in a statement.
Mihkel Pajusalu, the head of the space technology department at the observatory, noted that many rovers were about to be put on the surface of the Moon in the near future to conduct research, and NASA’s Artemis space program has given a boost to the development of space technology in both the private and public sectors.
“In the long term, the Moon is a good stepping stone to prepare for missions to Mars. So, if we start developing a lunar rover in Estonia now, we will later have the skills and technology to apply for Mars missions,” Pajusalu said.
The next step for Estonia’s space industry
The starting point of the project is KuupKulgur, inspired by cubic satellites such as ESTCube, which is currently being developed as a student project and of which the first prototype has been completed. On the industry side, Crystalspace and LightCode Photonics have become part of the project and negotiations are underway with several other Estonian companies.
Jaan Viru, the founder of the company Crystalspace, which develops space cameras, said that while satellites, cameras and software have been developed in Estonia to date, the lunar rover project is the next step for the country’s space industry.
“The year before last, together with a number of Estonian companies and Tartu Observatory, we produced cameras for NASA’s mission to the Moon. This project opens an easier way for Estonian technology to make it into other rovers or landers going to the Moon or Mars, for example, because the technology can be tested in the lunar context before the flight,” Viru said.
The third country to leave rover prints on the moon
Hans Teras, the head of KuupKulgur, the NGO set up to run the project, said Estonians will join a handful of select companies and institutes from around the world if the project is successful.
“Dreaming even bigger, if launching with the next rocket to the Moon, we would potentially be the third country in the history of the world to have a robotic rover leave its wheel prints on the lunar surface,” Teras added.
The project has been joined by Hans Teras and Quazi Saimoon Islam, PhD students in physics at Tartu Observatory of the University of Tartu, who have long-term experience in the development of space missions, and students of the fields of natural sciences and engineering at the doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s levels at the University of Tartu. As experts, the project team is supported by several Estonian space scientists and champions of the field, such as Mihkel Pajusalu, Viljo Allik, Aire Olesk and Ayush Jain.
The project will also develop testing facilities. Last year, a Space Mission Simulation Centre opened at Tartu Observatory and the first version of the Ulysses computer simulation environment, which allows a model of the Moon rover to be driven on simulated lunar surface and collect data, was completed.
Crystalspace and LightCode Photonics develop cameras, light sources and a depth camera. These devices could become the rover’s navigation instruments on the Moon.