Space drilling rig

Visualization of the drilling rig

Scheme of the drilling module

AGK, the lunar soil analog

Grain fractions of the lunar soil analog

An exploratory well

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong was taking samples of the lunar soil, he could not have imagined that half a century later the material collected by him would be used by Polish scientists in their research work the results of which can be of great importance for people all over the world. It is obvious but often ignored that terrestrial natural resources indispensable for the growth of our civilization are not unlimited. However, scientists have already started developing methods to make use of neighbouring planets as potential locations where scarce resources can be acquired. Exploration methods adapted to these unbelievably difficult conditions are being developed by joint engineering teams from AGH UST and SRC PAS (the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences).


AGK in tribute to AGH


“Space” research of scientists from Krakow and Warsaw is being carried out by SRC PAS and also by the Faculty of Drilling, Oil and Gas (the Department of Drilling and Geoengineering) and the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics (the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics) at AGH UST. The project named “Constructing a model of an automated core drill for working in extreme conditions with particular focus on space environment” is the continuation of the five-year cooperation.  The first stage was devoted to creating an analog of lunar soil, named AGK (the first two letters of this acronym are to emphasize that this was AGH UST where the analog was created, while “K” signifies Księżyc, the Polish word for the Moon). This material, obtained by Prof. Andrzej Gonet, Stanisław Bednarz, Ph.D., from the Faculty of Drilling and Geoengineering in cooperation with Karol Seweryn, Ph.D., from SRC PAS on the basis of extremely accurate granulometric and geomechanical data analysis of the lunar soil analog produced in the USA, is an exact simulant of soil samples collected by Neil Armstrong on the Silver Globe. Fine grey powder resembles cement in appearance, but, as the scientists assure, does not have anything in common with cement as far as its chemical composition is concerned. Producing it at AGH UST was extremely difficult and time-consuming, but it was vital for paving the way for conducting a drilling research project under conditions simulating those on the Moon. A patent application for AGK has already been submitted to the Patent Office.


As M. Rzyczniak, Ph.D, points out, “We aimed to create a relatively inexpensive product which would have similar properties to those of the lunar soil and to use it for testing the behaviour of machines and devices which are designed to work on it. Our analog is not an analog of lunar soil but an analog of another analog. During the Apollo 11 mission, Americans collected samples of this soil and no one else has access to them. But they produced the first lunar soil analogs on the basis of real lunar soil samples. Such analogs were bought by SRC PAS and, following the establishment of cooperation with SRC by Prof. Andrzej Gonet, Dean of the Faculty of Drilling, Oil and Gas, they were brought to us. Since they are extremely expensive, only a few dozen kilograms were bought, while we need a few tonnes. That’s why someone who would venture to create a Polish analog was needed. This was accomplished at AGH UST. It is the first Polish lunar soil analog. Over 6 tonnes of this material were produced for laboratory research.”


Robot and space drilling rig


The project of the mobile drilling rig is divided into three parts. The Department of Drilling and Geoengineering is to design a core drilling system capable of remote drilling of holes and taking samples under extreme conditions. The Department of Robotics and Mechatronics is responsible for designing a mobile robot, whose task will be to autonomously carry the system to the selected location where the drilling is to be conducted. SRC PAS has to design a system enabling to convey the core drilling system to a desired depth and to prepare a system for storing samples.
A. Zwierzyński, Ph.D., from the Faculty of Drilling, Oil and Gas says,”The scope of our research seems abstract, yet there is increasing global interest in devices of this kind, since plans for utilizing neighbouring planets require the exploration of soil composition at relatively small depths. The European Space Agency and NASA are showing more and more interest in those matters. Scientists from AGH UST, who have been cooperating with SRC PAS for a number of years, have proposed that the knowledge and skills acquired by both parties should be combined to jointly develop a project whose aim will be to construct equipment allowing for drilling on neighbouring planets and which could also be used to work under extreme conditions on the Earth, in locations inaccessible for man or the access to which would pose a danger to human health and safety.”
Prof. Tadeusz Uhl from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics, AGH UST, says,”The drilling rig which is being designed is self-supporting and equipped with an autonomous mobile unit designed for working both in space and under harsh terrestrial conditions as well. Highly innovative solutions were applied in the design of power supply systems that would provide energy required to ensure mobility and to conduct drilling. A drilling rig constructed in this way has integrated communication and control systems allowing for remote control and even for its autonomous operations in space. The constructed prototype will be tested under space simulated conditions in SRC PAS laboratories. I hope the results obtained due to this project will bring us closer to acquiring scarce yet frequently needed elements from the planets of our solar system to the Earth. Now it is hoped that this is the Moon where we can find elements satisfying all of our energy needs.”


Minerals and traces of life


Scientists are trying to create a device capable of moving and drilling holes to allow for collecting samples from different locations, including depths ranging to even a number of metres. Prof. Andrzej Gonet says, “The analog created by us enables to carry out test drilling in a material imitating lunar soil having very peculiar physical properties. Such a material is characterized by, inter alia, high abrasion resulting from irregular grain shape, not occurring in terrestrial environments. Due to small grain sizes, the material easily gets inside even the tiniest mechanisms. Designing mechanisms performing well in such an environment poses a technological challenge and is impossible without tests involving the use of lunar and Martian soil analogs. The new drilling rig is multifunctional. Among other things, having low energy requirements it is capable of sampling several small-length cores. The sampled cores can be tested on board a landing module or transferred to a container which will return to the Earth. Then they will be transported to a laboratory.”


A.Zwierzyński, Ph.D., from the Faculty of Drilling, Oil and Gas explains,”We want to conduct drilling to the depth of a few metres, because these few meters are extremely important under Marsian conditions. Why? In Martian soil in some areas frozen water can be found at such depths and discovering it indicates the area where our base could be potentially located. Minerals which could be exploited in the future might occur in Martian soil. It is also thought that a few metres down traces of primitive life forms might be found.”


K.Seweryn, Ph.D., from SRC, stresses that, ”The exploration of subsurface layers of asteroids and planetary moons allows us for a better understanding of the evolution of the Universe and the processes taking place over billions of years. For example, missions to the Marsian moon, Phobos, which are being prepared now, are expected to provide answers to the key question dividing paleontologists, namely if Phobos was overtaken by Mars or, maybe, similarly to our moon, it was  formed from mother planet. In this way basic research and technology permeate each other.”


First tests and immediate success


Since terrestrial conditions significantly differ from those on other planets, test drilling had to be conducted in a vacuum chamber (SRC is equipped with one). The scientists from AGH UST are satisfied with the results of obtained from testing the drilling rig, as they turned out to be successful both as regards energy consumption and as regards the effectiveness of obtaining core samples of rocks. Based on this research, a prototype of a rover to which the drilling rig will be attached, a prototype of the drilling rig and the operating instructions for the rig. Wojciech Teper from the Department of Drilling and Geoengineering adds, “At present we are building particular components of the drilling rig and, when we have assembled them, the drilling rig will be tested, which in turn will be followed by a revision of the design assumptions. Next, another testing will take place, and afterwards the final version of the robot equipped with a drill will be constructed.” 


Applications on the Moon and on the Earth


The scientists from AGH UST are also considering making use of the drilling rig in contaminated areas. Polish universities and research institutes have at their disposal different types of remote-controlled robots which can enter dangerous regions, but so far we have not had in Poland a device capable of collecting soil samples by shallow hole drilling, for example to check how contaminated the soil is. The scientists emphasize that,” Our solution will be, in a sense, unique due to the possibility of cooperating with the autonomous UAV helicopter which is owned by the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics. We are planning to solve it in such a way that the rover will be connected to the helicopter, which will disconnect it upon landing, and then the rover will penetrate the area by itself.


Currently ESA and NASA are investing  vast sums of money in research on the construction of robots able to drill into the ground and to collect samples from subsurface layers. So it seems that for future space missions solutions like those elaborated at SRC PAS and AGH UST will be extremely valuable. All the more so, because the scientists from the AGH, designing devices for space exploration, also have terrestrial applications of these devices in mind. / do it with a view to find also terrestrial applications for these devices. And scenarios for utilizing robots which can collect samples from dangerous areas do not need to be invented – they happen by themselves. The disaster in Fukushima in 2011 can serve as an example.


Text by Ilona Trębacz