Space startup Stells wants to put spacecraft charging covers on the moon • TechCrunch

The portable power bank first hit the market in 2001 and ever since then charging on the go has become an option for most mobile device users. Now, a new aerospace company wants to take the concept of mobile charging to the moon – not for mobile phones, of course, but for rovers and landers.

Founded by CEO Alex Kapralov and CTO Vital Ioussoupov in 2021, Toronto-based Stells is developing a rover called Mobile Power Rover (MPR-1) that can provide power to lunar spacecraft via wireless charging. The company has assured of a November 2024 launch date via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and an Intuitive Machines lander, with a tentative landing on the moon in January 2025.

Stells was initially interested in the lunar drilling industry, particularly lunar craters. But early research indicated that a power source for a drill rover would likely be prohibitively expensive. That inspired MPR-1. “Why don’t we just provide power to others so they can have redundancy in their power supply?” Kapralov tells TechCrunch.

Most spacecraft derive their energy from one of two sources: solar panels and radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG). Of course, solar panels only work in areas that receive sunlight – deep craters don’t always receive sunlight. Solar panels also require a lot of surface area. With car-sized rovers like those on Mars, that’s not a problem. But the next generation of lunar rovers will be much smaller. For example, NASA is developing Called Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Explorers that will be the size of shoeboxes.

RTG, on the other hand, does not rely on the sun, instead using the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 to generate electrical energy. The technology, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite expensive and may not be cost-effective for small rovers.

Given the current push on lunar projects — Artemis 1, for example, launched with four CubeSats destined for the moon (along with six others going elsewhere) — MPR-1 has the potential to be quite useful.

Illustration of a possible mining operation in a dark crater, with power coming from solar energy at the rim.

“The way we plan to provide power is by using a box we call the Wireless Charging Box or WCB,” says Kapralov. The WCB would harness power through solar panels – in the case of a lunar crater, it would place it on the rim of the crater, then run power cables down to the crater floor, where the WCB would be stationed.

The WCB then stores that power in its batteries and then quickly distributes it to other rovers via wireless charging. Those rovers, requiring a specific wireless charging port compatible with the WCB, could navigate to the WCB using a beacon or visual navigation. With no atmosphere to attenuate the wireless power signal, this process would be much more efficient than on Earth.

Kapralov also hopes the WCB would be able to travel to a lunar spacecraft using power to deliver a launch charge, though that’s a challenge for a future mission. The first mission would simply be a technology demonstration for the WCB.

So far, Stells has built and tested prototypes on Earth – and it’s funded entirely from its own resources. “But we’re probably going to start early next year to try and raise some money for the development and launch of the flight,” says Kapralov.

In the past two decades there has been a significant push for lunar exploration, and while development is widespread, results have been minimal. Google’s Lunar Xprize contest, for example, had companies develop lunar rovers for a grand prize of $20 million. The competition began in 2007 and had a moon landing deadline in 2014; when it was clear that no one would be ready in 2014, that deadline was extended, eventually to 2018.

Although five teams eventually won launch contracts, Google ended the competition without a winner. Those teams’ Moon Express and Team Indus contracts were terminated, while Hakuto/ispace and Synergy Moon are still working on the launch. The fifth team, SpaceIL, launched to the moon in 2019, but the landing attempt failed.

Still, the lunar industry continues to evolve and more missions are closer to reality than ever before. Nothing is guaranteed – there is fertile ground for well-intentioned failures. But the moon is the limit for the dozens of companies like Stells hoping to get there.

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