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Floating railway on the moon picked for NASA funding

NASA has increased funding for a levitating railway on the moon that could one day transport soil around the lunar surface.

The magnetic ‘FLOAT’ system is one of six “visionary concepts” that will receive up to US$600,000 for progressing to phase II of the Innovative Advanced Concepts programme (NIAC).

A complete list of successful projects is detailed at the bottom of this page.

“These diverse, science fiction-like concepts represent a fantastic class of Phase II studies,” said John Nelson, NIAC program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington.


“Our NIAC fellows never cease to amaze and inspire, and this class definitely gives NASA a lot to think about in terms of what’s possible in the future.”

The eye-catching FLOAT rail system, overseen by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is designed to transport up to 100 tons of materials a day using unpowered magnetic robots.

In particular, its plan to transport lunar soil, or regolith, could be vital to NASA’s ambition to turn the substance into oxygen necessary to support a permanent human base.

“FLOAT robots have no moving parts and levitate over the track to minimise lunar dust abrasion or wear, unlike lunar robots with wheels, legs, or tracks,” said Ethan Schaler from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


“FLOAT tracks unroll directly onto the lunar regolith to avoid major on-site construction – unlike conventional roads, railways, or cableways.

“FLOAT will operate autonomously in the dusty, inhospitable lunar environment with minimal site preparation, and its network of tracks can be rolled up or reconfigured over time to match evolving lunar base mission requirements.”

It comes after the ELO2 consortium recently unveiled an upgraded prototype of the rover it hopes will be Australia’s first on the moon.

The “more capable” machine will travel across the country to be displayed, including at Space Connect’s Australian Space Summit and Exhibition.

Like the futuristic train concept, NASA hopes the rover will be able to collect lunar regolith. Australia has been tasked with creating a design that can prove the concept on the moon and pave the way for future missions.

ELO2 is competing against the rival AROSE consortium, with the winner likely to be picked later this year.

“In developing a lunar rover for Australia, ELO2 has supported over 40 new jobs, including interns, and expects to support more than 150 new jobs if awarded the next phase of the Moon to Mars Trailblazer Program,” said ELO2’s Ben Sorensen.

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program Phase II projects

Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE): Enabling the Next Generation of Large Space Observatories would create a large optical observatory in space using fluidic shaping of ionic liquids. These in-space observatories could potentially help investigate NASA’s highest-priority astrophysics targets, including Earth-like exoplanets, first-generation stars, and young galaxies. The FLUTE study is led by Edward Balaban from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

Pulsed Plasma Rocket: Shielded, Fast Transits for Humans to Mars is an innovative propulsion system that relies on using fission-generated packets of plasma for thrust. This innovative system could significantly reduce travel times between Earth and any destination in the solar system. This study is led by Brianna Clements with Howe Industries in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW) could change the way NASA conducts astronomy. This mega constellation low-frequency radio telescope uses thousands of autonomous SmallSats capable of measuring the magnetic fields emitted from exoplanets and the cosmic dark ages. GO-LoW is led by Mary Knapp with MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Radioisotope Thermoradiative Cell Power Generator is investigating new in-space power sources, potentially operating at higher efficiencies than NASA legacy power generators. This technology could enable small exploration and science spacecraft in the future that are unable to carry bulky solar or nuclear power systems. This power generation concept study is from Stephen Polly at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

FLOAT: Flexible Levitation on a Track would be a lunar railway system, providing reliable, autonomous, and efficient payload transport on the moon. This rail system could support daily operations of a sustainable lunar base as soon as the 2030s. Ethan Schaler leads FLOAT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration distributes Quantum dot-based sensors throughout the surface of a solar sail, enabling it to become an innovative imager. Quantum physics would allow NASA to take scientific measurements through studying how the dots absorb light. By leveraging the solar sail’s area, it allows lighter, more cost-effective spacecraft to carry imagers across the solar system. ScienceCraft is led by NASA’s Mahmooda Sultana at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Adam Thorn

Adam Thorn

Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

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