Team Proposes Beaming of Energy via Laser for Lunar Exploration (BELLE) of Permanently Shadowed Craters

NASA has selected the University of Virginia School of Engineering to develop and demonstrate a laser technology that will power exploration on the dark side of the Moon. UVA Engineering is one of eight universities to receive funding for concept development through NASA’s competitive Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. NASA selected concepts that could benefit its Artemis program, to study the Moon ahead of a human landing in 2024 or help establish a sustained presence by 2028.

“Exploration of the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions is critical as these areas contain water ice that, if harvested, could be used for a myriad of purposes,” said Walt Engelund, Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs in the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “The student teams bring their unique perspectives and ingenuity to the challenge. I am excited to see their innovative solutions.”

Mool Gupta, UVA Langley Distinguished Professor at the National Institute of Aerospace and a faculty member of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, leads the team of undergraduate students who will build a prototype called Beaming of Sun Light Energy via Laser for Lunar Exploration (BELLE). NASA is providing the team just under $125,000 to build and test BELLE. Paul Jaffe, lead electronics engineer for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s power beaming and space solar portfolio, serves as the team’s industry advisor.

“This is a unique challenge,” Gupta said. The craters can extend to 10 to 20 miles wide and can be up to a mile deep. “Our plan is to convert sunlight above the craters to power a laser and direct the laser beam to a rover in the crater for exploration and also to keep electronics and instruments warm, where temperatures are around minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit,” Gupta said.

Here’s how it works: BELLE uses solar arrays stationed on the crater’s rim to provide energy to a laser, which transmits power to the rover and other systems in the crater. This power relay requires illuminating solar panels that match the laser’s wavelength, as well as autonomous feedback and control systems between the laser and the rover over ten or more miles.

Gupta believes that BELLE will make it possible to energize systems operating in the darkness without those systems having to leave the crater or carry their own power sources. The team will demonstrate BELLE at NASA’s BIG Idea Forum in October 2020.