”It’s nice when you go home in the evening, you can look at the moon and say ‘that’s where my research is going!” says Philippe Ludivig, who started his PhD in February 2018.
Originally from Luxembourg, Philippe is no stranger to the space industry, having previously worked at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a trainee on ground data systems.
After finalising the legal framework for space resources utilisation in 2017, the Luxembourgish government developed and promoted the spaceresources.lu initiative to attract companies in the space sector, where Luxembourg has been making an early mark in space exploration endeavour, presenting a unique opportunity.
For companies to take the leap into space-related endeavours they will need to rely on the expertise of scientists to help them achieve their vision - Philippe is one of these scientists.
Philippe is employed by ispace Europe, the European headquarters of the lunar robotic exploration company based in Tokyo, Japan.
Since opening their European offices in Luxembourg in 2017, ispace Europe immediately started working with researchers with differing space-related backgrounds, and soon after, secured grants from the FNR’s schemes Industrial Fellowships and BRIDGES in various areas, including autonomous robotics, in-situ resource utilisation as well as lunar resources and reserves estimation.
As part of ispace’s team, Philippe works on creating a navigation system for a small lunar rover: teaching it to navigate around on the Moon’s surface, while creating a map, and locating itself on this map, in the process.
In the research domain, this is known as ‘SLAM’ – ‘Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping’. It essentially allows the rover to understand its environment, which is the first step needed to take autonomous decisions within this environment.
“We have a commanding system similar to what it would be on an actual mission so that we can operate as though it were a real scenario. But we also have the possibility to operate it directly” Philippe explains regarding how the rover, which can already drive, is operated.
Philippe’s work will be invaluable to the ispace rover reaches the lunar surface. The communication time delay as well as bandwidth issues make navigation from earth slow and cumbersome and therefore also means the loss of precious mission time. Hence, the company is very interested in increased autonomy Philippe’s research can provide.
“Any autonomy you can give your robot essentially increases the amount of science you can get done in the mission lifetime. For ispace, this is particularly interesting because we are currently aiming for a very brief initial mission. Our rovers are built very small, but that also means they don’t survive the lunar night: we have a mission lifetime of up to 14 days, which is very short”, Philippe explains.
Once their testing in the virtual environment has yielded favourable results, they move on to a more physical approach, working within an 'indoor moon environment', built at ispace Europe to simulate the lunar surface.
Here, Philippe can better test the rover with real-world sensors. He explains that although “real world” environment isn’t exactly the same as the Moon itself, it is a more accurate depiction than the almost perfect images and sensor data generated by the virtual environment.
At ispace, they will explore all creative and innovative options, because “it allows the company to augment their knowledge and pioneer new domains”.
“As opposed to the virtual images, we can capture actual images here, including the noise in the data: the sensor data is more realistic in that sense, even if we are locked to the size of the testing facility” Philippe explains regarding testing the lunar rover.
Image: The rover on the lunar analogue testing facility.
About Philippe Ludivig
Philippe Ludivig is from Luxembourg. He has a bachelor's degree in Computer Visualisation (UK), a masters degree in Digital Effects (UK) and an M.Sc. in Information and Computer Sciences (LU). Before starting his PhD at ispace, he worked as a Computer Vision Expert at the University of Luxembourg as well as a Science Mission Data Systems Analyst at the European Space Agency (ESA).
Find out more about this project on the SnT website
About Julien Lamamy
Dr Julien Lamamy, a French national, holds a M.Sc. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Ecole Centrale de Lyon, France, and a PhD from renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA, also in Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Before joining ispace Europe as Engineering Manager in 2017, Julien spent 16 years in the United States. There he worked in satellite engineering, working both for NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), as well as Orbital, a company specialising in the design, manufacture and launch of small- and medium- class space and rocket systems (Orbital has since merged with other companies to become Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.)