Marja-Liisa Plats

Scientists and students to develop the first Estonian lunar rover

Researchers and students of the Tartu Observatory at the University of Tartu started the development of Estonia's first lunar rover, designed to take Estonian technology to the Moon at the end of this decade or the beginning of the next. The first step is a feasibility study to determine which lunar rover can be built in Estonia and realistically delivered to the surface of the Moon. It will also gauge the interests of Estonian industry and scientists to test their technology on the Moon.

Dr. Mihkel Pajusalu, Associate Professor of Space Technology and Head of the Space Technology Department at the Tartu Observatory stated, “In the near future, many rovers will be arriving on the Moon for scientific research, and NASA's Artemis space program has boosted the development of space technology in both the private and public sectors. Over the long term, the Moon is a good intermediate step in preparing for space missions to Mars. So starting the development of a lunar rover in Estonia now means having the necessary skills and technology to apply for later Mars missions.”

The project's starting point is KuupKulgur, inspired by cube satellites (such as ESTCube), which is currently being developed as a student project, and the first prototype has already been completed. Estonian companies Crystalspace and LightCode Photonics are involved in the project, and negotiations are ongoing with other Estonian companies to join.

Jaan Viru, the founder of Crystalspace, which develops space cameras, and satellites said, “Cameras and software have been developed in Estonia so far, but this is the next step for the Estonian space industry. The year before last, together with several Estonian companies and the Tartu observatory, we produced cameras for NASA's lunar mission. This project offers an easier way for Estonian technology to reach other rovers or landers that are destined for the Moon or, for example, Mars because the technology can be tested in the context of the Moon even before the flight.”

Hans Teras, the head of the KuupKulgur NGO, created to implement the project stated, “Estonians, if successful, will be in the same company as selected companies and institutes from all over the world. Dreaming even bigger, if we launch the next spaceship to the Moon, we would potentially be the third country in history whose robotic rover would leave its wheel tracks on the surface of the Moon. But the basis for the success of such a mission is comprehensive preliminary engineering work, a feasibility study.”
The project team consists of Ph.D. students in Physics at the Tartu Observatory of the University of Tartu Hans Teras and Quazi Saimoon Islam, who have long-term previous experience with the development of space missions, and Ph.D., master's and bachelor's level natural sciences and engineering students of the University of Tartu — Silvar Muru, Karin Kruuse, Mathias Plans, Laur Edvard Lindmaa, Aditya Savio Paul.

Several Estonian space scientists, such as Mihkel Pajusalu, Viljo Allik, Aire Olesk, and Ayush Jain are supporting the project as experts.
Over the course of the project, opportunities for testing the technology are also being developed. For example, Tartu Observatory opened the space mission simulation centre last year, and completed the first version of the ULYSSES computer simulation environment, with which it is possible to travel on a simulated lunar surface with a lunar rover model, and collect data.

The project takes place in the planetary rover working group created in the Space Technology department of the Tartu Observatory at the University of Tartu. The KuupKulgur NGO was established to carry out the student project. Estonian companies Crystalspace and LightCode Photonics, who develop cameras and light sources and a depth camera, respectively, are also initially involved. These devices could become the rover's navigational instruments on the Moon. These companies are just the beginning, negotiations are ongoing with many other partners.

You are invited to see the prototype of the lunar rover at Startup Day in Tartu on 15-17 March. The demo area of the event will be open from 16 March. You will have the chance to drive around with the prototype. The rover will be connected to its digital twin, which will simultaneously drive around on a screen. University of Tartu will showcase deep tech startup opportunities at Startup Day. Read more.

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