The space agency is seeking bids for a new vehicle could be used not just to ferry astronauts around but to autonomously complete tasks for paying customers.
NASA has opened competition to build a moon vehicle that would be a cross between the Apollo-era “moon buggy” that astronauts drove on the lunar surface and the remotely operated robotic rovers that have operated on Mars for years.
Called the “Lunar Terrain Vehicle,” the rover would play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to create the infrastructure on and around the lunar surface that would allow for a long-term and sustainable human presence. To achieve that, the space agency is working to develop sources of power on the moon, as well as the technologies that would allow astronauts to “live off the land” by mining lunar resources and even using the lunar regolith, or lunar dust, to create building blocks that could be used to create habitats.
Transportation is also a key component. In a statement last week, NASA said it wants vehicles that astronauts “will drive to explore and sample more of the lunar surface using the LTV than they could on foot.”
“As we found on Apollo, one to two kilometers is about as far as you want to walk in a suit on the lunar surface,” Steve Munday, NASA’s LTV program manager, said in an interview. “So you need something else. You need to extend that range, both for transportation and for science.”
But since astronauts would be on the surface only for up to 30 days at a time, the vehicle would need to be useful without astronauts on board. Between crewed missions, the LTVs would be used to “transport cargo and scientific payloads between crewed landing sites, enabling additional science returns, resource prospecting and lunar exploration,” the agency said in a statement.
For various missions, NASA will pay to use the rover for its purposes. “But then, the other several months of the year, it’ll be up to the provider to commercialize it,” Munday said. “So we’re not only leveraging commercial innovation but helping to drive this nascent lunar economy.”
Paying customers could include companies performing science experiments on the moon or prospecting for resources.
NASA intends to use the lunar rover with astronauts beginning with the third human spaceflight mission of its Artemis program — known as Artemis V — which is tentatively scheduled for 2029. But the rover would be used for uncrewed and potential commercial activities before then.
NASA also plans to send what it calls its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to the moon as soon as late next year. It would explore the moon’s south pole, NASA says, on a 100-day mission to search for water on the moon and help NASA decide how best to access it.
One of the companies aiming to be first in the LTV competition is a start-up called Venturi Astrolab, founded by Jaret Matthews, a former SpaceX and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer.
This year, the company announced that it had signed a contract with SpaceX to deliver its land vehicle, the Flexible Logistics and Exploration Rover, or FLEX. Set to happen as early as mid-2026, the mission would be the first commercial foray for SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which NASA also intends to use to ferry its astronauts to and from the lunar surface for the first two landings under Artemis.
The rover is designed to be, as the name implies, flexible. Its modular design will allow it to swap out payloads and serve different missions over time, Matthews said. Venturi Astrolab said it has signed agreements for commercial payloads but did not provide details on them.
“It’s really about ultimately enabling a sustained human presence and all that entails,” Matthews said in an interview. “Just as the International Space Station has a continuous flow of consumables heading to it, the same is likely to be true for the first several decades of operations on the moon. And that’s where we see ourselves — serving that market.”
Other bidders include some of the biggest names in aerospace teaming up with automobile manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin and General Motors, a partnership the companies say would bring extraordinary expertise, given the harsh environment of the moon. For the Artemis missions, NASA wants to explore the moon’s south pole, where there is water in the form of ice. But there also are harshly cold nights that can last 14 days at a time.
“Today, what we demand is something that’s highly capable,” said Kirk Shireman, the vice president for Lockheed Martin’s lunar exploration campaign. “It will be autonomous. One of the big things is that it can survive the lunar night, which are long and very, very cold. And electronics don’t like very, very cold.”
An artist’s rendering shows three configurations of the Lunar Mobility Vehicle being developed by Lockheed Martin and General Motors. (Courtesy of General Motors)
The defense contractor Leidos is pairing up with NASCAR. Sierra Space is teaming up with Teledyne Brown Engineering and Nissan. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, is in talks to team up with Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company also building a lunar lander.
“Those kinds of untraditional partnerships [are] very encouraging for the kind of innovation and the range of designs we may get for this proposal,” Munday said.
A contract award is expected by November.
Quelle: The Washington Post