A Spacebit Interview
by Leon Perniciaro
Spacebit Technologies is slated to send the UK’s first lunar rover to
the moon in 2021, and our assistant editor, Leon Perniciaro, recently sat down with their founder and CEO, Pavlo Tanasyuk, to discuss the challenges and rewards of lunar exploration--and just why their rover is shaped like a spider.
Leon Perniciaro: Thank you for joining me! You must have to introduce yourself a lot. Have you developed a standard introduction about who you are and what Spacebit does, and can we hear it?
Pavlo Tanasyuk: Sure! So we are the first UK mission to the moon, and that kind of explains it all, but it's a very complex definition. We are a company working in robotics, and our goal is to create a new concept for a rover that is smaller than everything that's come before. We believe that in the future, these small robots will help humans with their activities on the moon and other planets. Our mission is in 2021, so next year, and as you can imagine, at the moment we are working really hard on our technical stuff.
LP: My understanding of Spacebit's Asagumo lunar rover is that it is unusual in that it uses legs instead of wheels, with the express purpose of reaching difficult places like lunar lava tubes. What's the benefit of using legs, and why are the lava tubes of such interest for exploration?
PT: Legs are kind of obvious and non-obvious. It's obvious if you look at nature--most of us have legs and not that many animals have wheels--and that's for a reason. Because when you want to jump or step over something, it's hard to do when you have wheels. I am sitting in a car, and basically this car has limited ways to travel on rocky terrain. It's the same with the rover. You're limited in terms of where you can go. Maybe you have a longer range, that's true, but if you want to go to harder places, then you probably want to consider legs. It's something that was never done before, and it does raise eyebrows in the space community as well because it's challenging. It's different from legs in nature, different motors, and we have to do everything from scratch, which complicates things.
But the reason why I did this is because we want to explore the lava tubes [on the moon]. The reason lava tubes are important is that there is a lot of interest in them as potential time capsules. They have information from billions of years before. There is no light from the sun, no radiation from the external environment, and no atmosphere, so nothing got in there like on earth, where we have lava tubes but many things have gotten in, because we have an atmosphere. So you're able to go there and explore those habitats, these environments preserved for billions of years, so it has a very interesting story for the science aspect.
But it's also my personal belief, and some experts at other institutions and space agencies share this view, that we potentially may live in those lava caves on the moon. Astronauts, when they go back, will have to build structures on the lunar surface, or underneath it, so that you can sustain life on the moon, or a colony on the moon. This is easier said than done because obviously it's not very easy to build something on the moon. The environment can be harsh. It can be minus 170 degrees at night. It can be plus 130 degrees during the day. So it's really cold and hot at the same time. But if you have the ability to live in the lava tubes, it can provide you a much better environment. The temperature in those lava tubes is more stable, so you can potentially have a better habitat for humans in the future. And you don't really have to build anything. All you really have to do is seal the entry. So as you can see, there's a scientific reason behind it, but also a kind of business reason in the future of habitats and a new way to explore the moon.
LP: I wonder how comfortable I would be living on the moon. I don't know if I have that exploratory urge in me.
PT: I'll probably fly and check what the guys are doing there. I probably won't stay, but I am the CEO, so I have to fly in and check.
LP: That does make sense. Do you think it'll definitely happen in our lifetimes then?
PT: If you don't have some global problems in our society at large, then definitely I believe we will have what people call a lunar village. I believe that in 10 or 15 years time, it's quite likely that we will see that. It is very futuristic in a way, but if everything goes right, we will probably be moving in that direction.
LP: About 10 years ago, I made a bet with a friend about going to Mars. I say we'll set foot there by the end of 2029, but he is very skeptical. I'm nervous though, as time goes on, that we're not going to make it.
PT: I don't know about Mars. Mars is a bit complicated because it's a long journey, right? We have two missions, and one is still secret, and we'll be revealing it next week, but the one that is public probably will take us a couple of weeks to transit from the Earth to the moon. For human spaceflight, the Apollo missions, it was less than 3 days, and in the future I believe it will also be around a couple of days from Earth to the moon. But Mars is a different story. We're talking about multiple months in transit, and that's why it's difficult, with the radiation and so on, so it's a human factor more than anything else. But we'll see. I'm positive that we, not as a company but as humanity, will land a human being on Mars probably within the next 15 years. Ten maybe--I hope so--but 15 for sure.
LP: We'll see if my bet works out then. We've only wagered a coke. But let's take the human out of it then. I imagine that the underground nature of this kind of mission provides a technical challenge for the control of the rover. I have this image in my head of somebody at a control panel with a joystick, but I don't imagine that's actually how things are. So how important is AI and the ability of these kinds of rovers to be self-directed?
PT: It's super important, especially in the future, because when we have multiple rovers there, we don't really imagine having an operator for each of them. They will have to make their own decisions. They will have to work in a swarm formation. They will have to talk to each other and figure out what to do, even though the main task would probably still be communicated from the ground, from the Earth or the moon.
In terms of the first mission, it's probably less so. Our rover does have--you can call it AI or some smart capabilities--so it's capable of making some decisions in terms of where it would go or what it would do--it should stop if the battery dies, or if it should hide--but our plan is to play a little bit. It's like a computer game, so our expectation is we would actually be steering our rover from the ground sensor control for the first mission, and at the end of this mission, we might want to turn on the AI mode and see what happens. But for the first hours or days of operation, depending on how successful we are, we definitely want to have a manual mode first, and then let it go and do what it wants.
LP: The swarm is something that struck me as interesting, because it's not just one of these little guys running around, but a whole network of them. So what is the benefit of using smaller but more of this type of rover?
PT: So there are a few benefits. First of all, and especially for a start-up, is the cost. When you think about space exploration and the price tags that come along, they're huge. It's very expensive. But in terms of these smaller robotics, or what you call micro-robotics, we can have more of a low-cost mission. And when you have a low-cost mission, and here we're not talking hundreds of millions but just millions, it's possible to take risks. So the usual concept of space exploration is, because it's expensive, we're risk averse. If there's a risk, if it's a government that's funded it, what if there is a failure? But with a low-cost mission, with small rovers, you can actually take that risk. We want to bring this concept not only to private exploration, but maybe space agencies will look at what we're doing and do the same, or they'll use our technology. So that's important.
So one of the factors is the cost, as I've said, but another is that you can do more. You can send more of them in the same way, because when we talk about lunar exploration, it's not only about the money, but also the kilograms, the mass, because it is expensive to get a heavy rover to the moon. Not only expensive, but there are some constraints in terms of the technology. So in our case, you can send not one but multiple rovers. Even though the first mission is just one, we are planning missions for 2024, and we see a swarm of robots going there and exploring the surface, and that's only possible because of the low weight.
So cost, weight, and then, time to market. Because it's small, with fewer parts, it's probably a shorter period of development, which is very important.
LP: You mentioned that there's a manual aspect to this first mission. Are you going to be in the driver's seat? I feel like I have to ask.
PT: Well, we have a person who is the operator of the lunar rover. He has some other tasks in our company as well, because it's a small business, but we have someone who is actually training to guide our rover. It would be fun to steer it on the moon, and actually I might try as well, but it's not simple. It's not like in a video game when you press a button and you have a reaction. There's actually a few seconds delay. So a signal going there and back, and some delays associated with ping time on the internet or other connections on Earth, and other constraints too, so you're actually getting at least two seconds delay, maybe more, when steering the rover.
LP: It's like Formula One. There's the driver, and there's the coach.
PT: It's the opposite of Formula One because it's so slow! We'll go real slowly, real carefully.
LP: Something that I also noted with interest was that there's an internationalist aspect to the mission. You're London-based. There's an international team. A Japanese name. I think I read that the Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency is involved--they provided some technology--and there's a Ukrainian design element. So my question is, was this internationalist aspect by design, or just how it came together, and how do you think it benefits the project?
PT: When you think about space projects, they've always been international. And even if it's an American rocket, you have parts from Ukraine or the UK, so that's already part of this ecosystem, even for larger companies. But for a start-up, the first thing that is important is talent. England is great in terms of attracting talent, but obviously we are limited in our resources and by time constraints, so we had to look for international talent. So you're right, it's Japan, it's Ukraine, it's Germany, it's the US--we have an office in Michigan now--so it's an international venture, and there are some other smaller partners helping in Latin America. But I always had the intention of having a distributed team of people, almost like when you go to space, you go as humanity rather than as a company, so that's an important aspect to it. That was my thinking, and then when we started to have this pandemic, it actually started to be important again. Because countries haven't gone into lockdown at the same time, we can have certain things done in the US, and then certain things done in the UK. So at the moment, actually, our organizational structure is helping us to survive and to complete the mission in those hard times of coronavirus, which unfortunately does affect the industry, if labs are closed or whatever. But it also brings difficult aspects of coordination, and that's something that's not something that's easily done, to coordinate people in multiple places.
LP: COVID pushed back your timeline, didn't it? I think I saw an interview where you mention that your launch was scheduled for this year. Or am I crazy?
PT: Maybe I said that in the past because we were planning to fly with a different lander, but they're not flying. It was probably a few years back the video you're referring to. Because we don't have a lander yet, we have to fly with someone else, but the realistic plan has always been 2021. And we're flying with American rocket and American lander.
LP: It's the Peregrine, right?
LP: A slightly more provocative question then: how do you respond to this idea that one often hears, especially when Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos is in the news, that we should be focusing our resources on problems on Earth--things like poverty and unequal access to the fruits of civil society--before we turn our attention and our resources to space exploration?
PT: I actually agree with that statement, but I'll tell you how I see it. I believe that we should be very careful with our planet Earth. There is no better world waiting for us in the near future. It's quite unlikely that we'll get another star in the near term. So we have to take care of our planet Earth. It's the cradle of our civilization. We were born here, and probably most of us will die here. Obviously, from an ecological perspective, what's happening in the world is really bad, and we have to address that aspect. But I would argue that space exploration is the driver that helps us fight those problems. In the past, we didn't know what Earth looked like from space, and the first picture of the Earth, taken on the flight to the moon, really made headlines. People started to think differently about how fragile our planet is and how important it is for us to take care of it. So my personal view is that we have to take on those grand projects, and we should see ourselves as a civilization which is faring to other locations and places and other planets, maybe, but that's still grounded in the place where we were born. That will let us think about our future, about these cosmic questions about why we're here and what we should be doing, and potentially that would help us to not waste our planet. So I believe we should be careful about what we do, but I believe that space exploration actually helps us a lot to preserve our world.
LP: Then, just to wrap up, what's the future of Spacebit and of human exploration? What's in store for us?
PT: It's different for different people. For some people it's inspiration, for some people it's a dream. For us, it's the possibility to take part in something important. And to make money as a company--we have to do it to take part in more missions--but I believe that if all of humanity was more engaged in that kind of thinking, in global thinking, and about other planets, about Earth, about our role in the solar system, in the universe, it would help us have fewer wars and maybe fewer problems here on Earth. And I have different aspirations than the aspirations of the company, but I believe that it can ultimately help our civilization to grow and to acquire a different level of understanding of our planet, our lives, and where we're going, while also not forgetting where we're from.
LP: My last question: we're primarily a literary magazine. We have articles about science and other things of that nature. But are you a big reader? Especially of science fiction or fantasy? Do you have any recommendations for us?
PT: Actually yes! I have to confess that recently I'm not reading much science fiction. I'm kind of part of science fiction now. But when I was a child, I did read a lot of books. Stanislaw Lem, for example, had a very big impact on my thinking, and I believe, without those science fiction books, that I would probably not be doing what I'm doing. So it really helped a lot. As a child, I always had in my mind images of other worlds and of people exploring, and I believe that's why I'm doing what I'm doing because now I can relate to those images in my head. So I do recommend science fiction. I mean, Stanislaw Lem was a driver for me, but there are many great authors. Arthur C. Clarke, a British one, and many others, you name them. I believe they really help us to go beyond our bodies and to live through those experiences.
Leon Perniciaro (he/him) is a writer, editor, and translator originally from New Orleans, but now living in New England. He worries about the climate crisis and the Great Filter. He also produces audio fiction, and he seldom wears hats.
Non-fiction by Leon Perniciaro:
"Lava Caves on the Moon! A Spacebit Interview" October 2020