Space startup Stells wants to put spacecraft refueling caps on the moon

The portable power bank first appeared on the scene in 2001, and since then charging on the go has been a possibility for most mobile users. Now, a new space company wants to bring the concept of mobile charging to the moon — not for cell phones, of course, but for rovers and landers.

Toronto-based Stells, founded by CEO Alex Kapralov and CTO Vital Yusupov in 2021, is developing a rover called the Mobile Power Rover (MPR-1) that will be able to power lunar spacecraft via wireless charging. The company has secured a November 2024 launch date via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and an Intuitive machines lander, tentatively landing on the moon in January 2025.

Stealth was initially interested in the lunar drilling industry, specifically lunar craters. But early research has shown that the power source for the drilling rover is likely to be too expensive. This inspired the MPR-1. “Why don’t we just provide power to others so they can have redundancy in their power?” Kapralov told TechCrunch.

Most spacecraft obtain power from one of two sources: solar panels and radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). Solar panels, of course, only function in areas that receive sunlight – deep craters don’t always receive sunlight. Solar panels also require a large surface area. With car-sized rovers like those on Mars, this is not a problem. But the next generation of moonwalkers will be much smaller. NASA, for example, is developing so-called Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Explorers, which will be about the size of shoeboxes.

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

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

An illustration of a possible mining operation in a dark crater, with power coming from solar power on the rim.

“The way we plan to deliver power is by using a box we call a wireless charging box, or WCB,” says Kapralov. The WCB would harness the energy through solar panels – in the case of a lunar crater, it would place them on the rim of the crater, then run power lines down to the bottom of the crater where the WCB would be located.

The WCB will then store this energy in its batteries, then quickly distribute it to other rovers via wireless charging. Those rovers that will need a specific WCB-compatible wireless charging port will be able to navigate to the WCB using a beacon or visual navigation. With no atmosphere to weaken the wireless power signal, this process would be much more efficient than on Earth.

Kapralov also hopes that the WCB will be able to travel to an exhausted lunar spacecraft to provide a launch charge, although that is a challenge for a future mission. The first mission will simply be a technology demonstration for the WCB.

So far, Stells is building prototypes and testing them on Earth — and it’s entirely self-funded. “But we will probably start near the beginning of next year to try to secure funds for the development and launch of the flight,” says Kapralov.

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

Although five teams ultimately secured startup contracts, Google ended the competition without a winner. The contracts of Moon Express and Team Indus from these teams have been canceled, while Hakuto/ispace and Synergy Moon are still working on the launch. A fifth team, SpaceIL, did launch to the moon in 2019, but his 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 failure. But the moon is the limit for the dozens of companies like Stells that hope to get there.

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