Mexico is using a bunch of tiny autonomous robots to take one giant leap into space exploration. Developed with the help of students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the nanobots are about to make the country’s first lunar mission a reality. The goal? To better understand the moon’s soil and explore the potential for future commercial mining.
The Colmena Project takes its name from the word for “beehive” in Spanish, a nod to the way the nanobots work as a group. During the proof-of-concept mission slated for June, the five solar-powered robots will attempt to analyze moon dust and lunar plasma. Each bot weighs in at only 57 grams (0.1 pounds) and measures 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) in diameter. That small size will allow the robots’ electronics to hover just 2 centimeters (0.79 inches) above the moon’s surface, marking the first time a team has attempted such a technological feat.
“How do you open the doors for Mexico to participate in this new market not only as a consumer but also as an actor?” says Gustavo Medina Tanco, head of the Laboratory of Space Instrumentation at UNAM’s Institute of Nuclear Science in Mexico City. “Either you have the money or you have the technology. And to have the technology is not trivial.”
During the five-year project to develop the robots, UNAM partnered with Mexico’s national space agency, its National Council of Science and Technology and the state of Hidalgo. It also collaborated closely with private space companies, including U.S. startup Astrobotic Technology, which will launch the robots aboard its Peregrine Lander.
Along the way, the team navigated supply chain delays and resourcing challenges. One workaround? With no full-time employees, Medina Tanco relied on more than 200 student researchers cycling through the university’s program. To reduce the learning curve and stay on budget, the team leaned into simple solutions whenever possible, such as creating a documentation system where students captured information on their smartphones and tablets and uploaded it to the cloud.
Medina Tanco kept team members on track and aligned to the strategy by designating project managers and sub-project managers for mission-critical elements. “It’s not only how you coordinate them, but that you have to motivate them,” he says.
Developing that kind of infrastructure around the project ultimately helped the team ace complex launch requirements. And when late-stage changes to the rocket’s payload specs forced the team to completely rethink the materials used for the robots and catapult system, it made the pivot. Through high-speed trial and error, it switched from polymers to metals and identified a motor that weighed less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces)—then retested, revalidated and meticulously documented the results.
The June launch is expected to be the first of many test missions. And Medina Tanco hopes the project will not just raise Mexico’s global aerospace profile but also galvanize government support for further space research and collaborations. That moonshot vision has already created new opportunities: Last year, Mexico signed the Artemis Accords, a NASA-led agreement that establishes a framework for global cooperation in future space exploration.
The project could inspire a new generation of changemakers, too.
“It will be a turning point,” says Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad. “All of Mexico's children and youths will know about it. Maybe it will inspire the next astronaut or the leader of the next missions."
Image credit: National Autonomous University of Mexico