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NASA aims to build a train on the moon

The concept of constructing a train on the moon might sound like a plot pulled from a science fiction novel, but it is now a viable project receiving NASA’s backing. This lunar train is among six innovative ideas recently funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC). 

Moving resources mined from the moon 

The project, dubbed Flexible Levitation on a Track (FLOAT), aims to utilize levitating magnetic robots to transport as much as 100 tons of lunar materials daily.

This advanced system, resembling a futuristic Scalextric set, promises a robust and autonomous solution for moving resources mined from the moon, essential for future lunar bases

“A durable, long-life robotic transport system will be critical to the daily operations of a sustainable lunar base in the 2030s,” said project leader Ethan Schaler, a robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We want to build the first lunar railway system, which will provide reliable, autonomous, and efficient payload transport on the moon.”

Flexible train tracks on the moon

Contrary to Earth’s railways, the moon train wouldn’t rely on fixed rails. Instead, Schaler and his team plan to use flexible tracks that can be directly rolled out onto the lunar surface, facilitating relocation if the moonbase’s layout changes. 

These tracks will support “unpowered magnetic robots” that levitate above them, with the track generating electromagnetic thrust to move the robots to their destinations.

Earth’s maglev trains

The operational principle mirrors that of Earth’s maglev trains, where powerful electromagnetic fields propel unpowered carriages along the tracks. However, in the FLOAT system, it’s the tracks that power movement, not the vehicles. 

According to Schaler, each robot could transport loads of various shapes and sizes at speeds around 1 mph (1.61 km/h), minimizing wear and tear on the tracks in the lunar dust.

Future lunar dwellers 

While the idea of lunar habitation remains speculative, NASA’s commitment to moon bases highlights the urgency of such innovations. 

The agency continues to develop plans under the Artemis missions to explore and potentially settle near the moon’s south pole, believed to contain ice – a critical resource for future lunar dwellers.

Despite the shifting timelines for crewed lunar landings, NASA’s vision includes establishing multiple base camps as part of the Artemis landings, according to Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development.

This initiative might soon see competition from international space agencies like those in Russia and China, each aiming to set up permanent settlements on the moon.

Train tracks on the moon

Given the moon’s hostile environment, the task of mining and transporting materials may be too hazardous for astronauts. 

However, the FLOAT system is designed to operate autonomously in the challenging conditions of the lunar landscape, handling tasks like transporting mined regolith or moving materials to and from landing sites and other outposts.

Amazing and inspiring lunar missions

FLOAT is one of the six groundbreaking proposals awarded phase two funding by NIAC, which includes projects ranging from fluid telescopes to plasma-powered rockets capable of reaching Mars in just two months. 

With a new funding of $600,000, Schaler’s team plans to develop a scaled-down version of the tracks and robots for further experimentation, potentially influencing future NASA missions.

“These diverse, science fiction-like concepts represent a fantastic class of Phase II studies. Our NIAC fellows never cease to amaze and inspire, and this class definitely gives NASA a lot to think about in terms of what’s possible in the future,” concluded John Nelson, NIAC’s program executive.

Artemis lunar missions

NASA has a series of ambitious plans for the moon under its Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon and establish a sustainable presence there. Here are some of the key objectives:

Human missions

Starting with Artemis I, which is an uncrewed mission, the program aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by the mid-2020s, with Artemis II and III involving crewed missions. These missions aim to explore the lunar South Pole, a region believed to contain water ice that could be crucial for long-term lunar habitation.

Lunar gateway 

NASA plans to build a space station in lunar orbit called the Gateway. This outpost will serve as a multi-purpose hub for scientific research, crew rest, and as a staging point for both lunar landings and potential missions to Mars.

Sustainable presence

The long-term goal is to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by the end of the 2020s, facilitating a range of scientific and commercial activities. This includes building infrastructure for power, habitat, and life support systems.

Scientific research

The lunar surface offers a platform for profound scientific research, including studying the origins of the Earth and the moon, the broader solar system, and the conditions for life elsewhere in the universe.

Technological development 

The moon will also serve as a testbed for technologies that could be critical for deeper space exploration, such as Mars. This includes testing life support systems, habitat designs, and resource utilization techniques like extracting water from lunar ice.


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