This “flying saucer” could give future lunar missions a bird’s eye view

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shared that some of its engineers are working on a new concept: a flying saucer that could one day explore the moon, some asteroids and other airless surfaces. According to the MIT News Office report, the flying saucer would take advantage of the moon’s natural charge to soar above the earth. Further research on the subject can provide great benefits as it can be much safer for the rover to be able to explore the moon and various asteroids without worrying about the condition of the surface.

Image: Lent by researchers at MIT

MIT’s concept can be made possible thanks to several factors, such as the lack of an atmosphere on the moon and other airless bodies. Due to being exposed to the sun, as well as surrounding plasma, the moon and asteroids are capable of building an electric field. It is thanks to this electric field that MIT’s hovering rover may be able to function.

The moon’s surface charge is powerful enough to soar dust over 1 meter above the ground. The MIT report compares this to the way static electricity can make your hair stand on end. MIT engineers are not the first to consider exploiting the moon’s static charge – the idea was first explored by NASA.

How would MIT’s “flying saucer” work?

Earth seen from the moon

Photo: Elena11 / Shutterstock

NASA’s idea was a little different from the concept MIT engineers are currently exploring. It involved using a hovering glider with Mylar wings. Since Mylar has the same charge as the moon’s surface, the scientists believe that the two materials would repel each other so that the glider could soar. Although the concept was good, there was one major flaw in it: It would only work with smaller asteroids, which greatly limited the use of the glider. Large planetary bodies create a much stronger force of gravity that would render the Mylar glider unusable as it would not be able to soar under such conditions.

MIT’s so-called flying saucer works around these limitations. The plan is to use ionic power to hover a vehicle up to 2 pounds on the moon and large asteroids. By using small ion thrusters, which MIT refers to as “ionic-liquid ion sources”, the vehicle would gain extra hovering power. The ion beams would charge the flying disk while improving the natural static charge of the surface.

The engineers involved in the project performed calculations to check if this model could potentially work. Adding extra thrusters that would emit positive ions may be just the thing to make the rover soar from the ground even on larger planetary surfaces, such as the Psyche asteroid. This would require a 10 kilovolt ion source, while hovering over the moon’s surface would require at least a 50 kilovolt source.

Research has shown that the “flying saucer” could be realistic

An asteroid flies through space

Photo: Marko Aliaksandr / Shutterstock

The team of engineers, consisting of Oliver Jia-Richards, Paulo Lozano and Sebastian Hampl, tried to simulate a real-world scenario and tested their concept in Lozano’s laboratory. To see if their calculations are correct, they manufactured a hexagonal test vehicle. It was really small and weighed only 60 grams, but the engineers tried to create a semi-faithful copy of the flying disc they have been working on.

The hexagonal vehicle had an ion thruster pointing up and four pointing down. Once created, it was placed inside a vacuum chamber over an aluminum surface. It was suspended above the surface by means of two calibrated springs next to a tungsten rod.

MIT electric levitation flying saucer test

Image: Lent by researchers at MIT (as linked above)

The test involved applying different voltages to the small vehicle thrusters and then measuring the resulting forces. MIT engineers were generally pleased with the results: it seems that their initial scenario of using a hovering rover on the moon and large asteroids could prove to be realistic.

MIT researchers believe that there are real benefits to the study. Being able to navigate rocky surfaces without risking damaging the vehicle could one day revolutionize the exploration of asteroids and the moon.

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