In the coming years, numerous missions will set off for the Moon, with the aim of establishing bases and outposts for astronauts, scientists and (why not?) tourists. Unlike the first missions in the 1960s and 1970s, this time humankind’s return to the Moon must be sustainable and long-lasting and, over the years, it must create nothing less than a real Lunar Economy.
For this reason, every person walking on the surface of the Earth’s natural satellite must be able to rely on services (such as communication and positioning) and infrastructure (such as that required to produce a constant supply of energy).
This is where the ORiS project fits in: it is a Moon-orbiting “electric power plant” that uses solar energy to power human exploration and colonisation activities on our satellite thanks to laser technology, transmitting energy wirelessly from the orbital infrastructure to the lunar bases.
We have spoken of ORiS and about what has happened in the past few months with Andrea Villa, a student completing his MSc in Aerospace Engineering at POLITO, formerly a pianist at conservatory and currently an MBA Master’s student. Andrea explained to us how the PoC of such a complex project is managed, stressing the importance of team work, as well as giving some advice to all the people who are about to take part in #T-TeC 2023, as the deadline for the final submission of projects and drawings is fast approaching (10 December).
Andrea, last year, the project you were part in, ORiS, won the opportunity to create a Proof of Concept, with funding from Leonardo and the technical support of Telespazio. How is it going?
Taking part in #T-TeC 2022 and winning the Test-It award was a pivotal moment for ORiS. At the time of the contest, the project had been developed and studied only in terms of simulation. The Proof of Concept, funded by Leonardo, allowed us to take a considerable step forward. We are still working on it but it is allowing us to validate, in a laboratory, so much of the simulation we had developed. We are verifying the yield of the transmission technology in different conditions of use and with different receiving technology. The results so far are promising and, while we know there is still plenty more work to do, the results we will obtain with this PoC are definitely a crucial step for the project’s progress.
ORiS is essentially a Moon-orbiting infrastructure for the wireless transmission of energy to the lunar surface. How can you make a PoC of such a complex idea?
To create a PoC of this sort, the best approach is to divide one big problem into lots of small parts that are all interconnected. In this way, you can build a technical development hierarchy and identify how the different technologies involved depend on one another. This is required when a project relies on many different technologies and many aspects related to them must be verified; it is not possible to test everything at the same time. Consider, for example, the ORiS infrastructure: it is made up of an orbiting segment (for the transmission of energy) and a segment on the lunar surface, which receives the energy. As part of the planning for the PoC we won at #T-TeC 2022, we identified the most important technology to be tested for each of the two segments. The results of these tests will allow us to increase the degree of accuracy of our simulation models and also to plan which key aspects need to be tested next.
Why did you and your team decide to take part in the Telespazio contest?
We felt #T-TeC 2022 was a very prestigious opportunity and, regardless of the results, we felt it would have given us the chance to have some feedback from the space industry. It gave everyone in ORiS an opportunity to grow professionally and change our mindset, because until that moment we had only had the opportunity to work in academia settings. One of the most positive aspects linked to the contest was seeing that the industrial world, made up of many major players, was willing to help and support us, that they were really interested in our project. We were always treated as equals, something that at the time I was very impressed with. It may be a legacy of the way things used to work in the past, but we often think that large companies are interested only in their own internal projects, so it was really inspiring to see that their attitude is actually to be interested in and supporting emerging groups such as our own.
Were you expecting to be one of the most valued projects? In your opinion, what are the essential features for a good space project?
We were satisfied with the quality of our work and, I think, this gave us the right confidence during the assessment phases. This said, nothing was certain, as this contest is open to everyone worldwide and many, many interesting projects were submitted.
In general terms, I think the most important feature of a good space project is to address a real, existing issue, keeping an open mind to find new and innovative solutions. The second feature, in order of importance - and this applies to all projects, space-related or otherwise - is the work team. Unlike a belief common in academia, when working on such ambitious projects it is impossible to start with all the required skills, or some other group would have already completed and built the project! For this reason, in my experience, it is crucial to have a work team who are very determined to learn every day to achieve the result.
The deadline for participating in the 2023 edition of #T-TeC is only a few days way, on 10 December. Do you have any tips to give future contest participants?
I have some advice on how you should view #T-TeC. Do not take part thinking this is just a contest to receive yet another award, because #T-TeC starts when it ends. The added value - and what makes it different from all other contests - is the possibility of starting to interface and work with two of the most important companies in the sector of aerospace and defence.
So my advice is: take part and make the best of the experience. In whatever stage you are, once you have a project idea and objective, presenting it to a committee of experts and receiving feedback is always to your advantage - and it is also one of the steps in any start-up’s growth!