February 28, 2022
This July will mark 53 years since Niel Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 walked on the moon. Though it was not the first or last moon exploration mission, it is quite possibly one of the most famous space exploration events in history. There have since been many lunar missions, but the United States is the only nation to have successfully carried out crewed lunar missions. The Apollo 11 mission has been one of the driving inspirations for space exploration agencies like NASA, the European Space Agency, and more to explore outer space. In February of 2022, Mexico announced that they would be participating in their first ever lunar exploratory mission with the help of 5 micro drones.
The Mexican Space Agency, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the State of Hidalgo, announced that the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) began preparations for the Colmena Project to launch this coming June. As the largest university in South America, with its main campus on a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mexico City, UNAM has become world renowned for the extensive research programs it runs. The Colmena Project is run by Professor Gustavo Medina-Tanco, the founder and head of UNAM’s Space Instrument Laboratory (LINX) at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences. In his laboratory, Professor Medina-Tanco focuses on the development of space and stratospheric devices.
Colmena, the Spanish word for beehive, is a series of 5 nano ground drones that will be collecting a wide range of samples from the surface of the moon. The disk-shaped drones are super thin, have a 5 inch diameter, roll on 2 wheels, and work together much like bees in a hive would. The drones communicate with each other in real time, as well as with a command station on earth. The drones will be collecting electromagnetic and regolith particle size measurements. One of the more revolutionary missions for the drones will be the collection of lunar plasma temperature for the first time. “No one has done this, nobody, not just in Mexico,” Professor Medina-Tanco said.
The drones will be transported to the moon onboard Pittsburgh, PA’s Astrobic Technology Peregrine lander. The ship was originally built for Google’s Lunar-X-Prize and will be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo program. The Colmena drone program will spend one month on the moon. “This is a small mission where we’ll test the concept,” Professor Medina-Tanco said, “and afterwards we’ll undertake other missions, first to the moon and then on to asteroids.” More than 200 engineers, mathematicians, chemists, and physicists from UMAN are collaborating on this monumental project. And while the Colmena Project is primarily a Mexican undertaking, Professor Medina-Tanco said that it has a vast global impact. “We can make a difference in the technology,” he said, “and for international cooperation that can then lead to important joint ventures to study the minerals or undertake other scientific exploration.”