3 companies win NASA contracts to develop new Artemis moon rover designs

In addition to financing the commercial development of new rockets, Artemis lunar landers and new spacesuits, NASA is moving forward with plans to buy an unpressurized lunar rover capable of carrying astronauts, scientific payloads — or both — across the rugged terrain of the lunar south pole, officials said Wednesday.

The agency announced the award of contracts to three companies to develop competing designs for a lunar terrain vehicle, or LTV, similar in concept to the rovers that carried the last three Apollo crews to the surface of the Moon more than 50 years ago.

Artist’s impression of Intuitive Machines’ “Moon Racer” lunar all-terrain vehicle concept. The Houston-based company was one of three contracts awarded Wednesday to NASA to refine concepts for a lunar rover that the agency can use as part of its Artemis lunar program.

Intuitive machines

But the new models will feature advanced technology, long-lasting tires, autonomous computer control and other technological improvements, allowing them to travel much greater distances under the manual control of an astronaut or by remote control from Earth.

“As astronauts explore the moon’s south pole region during our Artemis missions“They’ll be able to go further and conduct more scientific research than ever before with the Lunar Terrain Vehicle,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center. “Think of an Apollo-style lunar rover hybrid…and a platform unmanned mobile scientist.

“This will give the crew the ability to travel a much greater distance from their landing sites,” Wyche said. “Additionally, during unmanned operations, the LTV will provide autonomous operations for science and technology.”

Artist’s impression of the Lunar Outpost “Lunar Dawn” rover concept.

Lunar Outpost

The milestone-based Lunar All-Terrain Vehicle Services contract has a maximum value of $4.6 billion. But NASA is starting small, awarding three “feasibility” contracts to Intuitive Machines of Houston, Lunar Outpost of Golden, Colorado, and Venturi Astrolab of Hawthorne, California.

The companies will spend the next 12 months perfecting their designs and developing plans to get their rovers to the Moon. At this point, NASA will hold a formal competition and choose a single contractor to carry out the actual development.

The goal is to have a working rover waiting on the moon when astronauts making the third Artemis moon landing reach the lunar south pole later this decade.

Company representatives, citing the competitive nature of the project, declined to provide details on what kind of autonomy their rovers could achieve, whether they will use solar panels or how long a rover could last.

Artist rendering of Venturi Astrolab’s “FLEX” rover design, seen near a SpaceX lunar lander.

Venturi Astrolab

But Astrolab’s Jaret Matthews said NASA’s initial requirements “are that it travel at 15 kilometers per hour, be able to travel 20 kilometers on a charge, and be able to support an EVA ( moon walk) complete eight hours. “The level requirements. We intend to exceed them by a lot in most cases.”

Whatever the specifics, the unforgiving environment of the lunar south pole will pose a major challenge. Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, said his company is working with Boeing, Michelin and Northrop Grumman to develop its LTV.

“We’re going to need this world-class team to make this happen because…the environment on the Moon is harsh,” Altemus said. “We have temperature swings of 500 degrees. The South Pole region is rocky, steep and shady. This will put a strain on our suspension, transmission, electrical systems, and our autonomous driving algorithms and software.”

“We’re going to need this globally integrated team to make this happen, to allow this rover to live for 10 years and provide the service requested by NASA,” he added.

The other competitors are also partnering with large aerospace companies and all three are confident they can meet the challenge.

NASA too.

“We are combining the best of human and robotic exploration,” said Jacob Bleacher, planetary geologist and chief exploration scientist at NASA. “Between Artemis missions, when our astronauts are not on the Moon, NASA can use the remote operation capabilities of the LTV to continue exploration.

“The LTV is truly an exploration vehicle,” he said. “Where it will go, there are no roads. Its mobility will fundamentally change our view of the Moon.”

NASA’s long-term plans for Artemis also include a pressurized rover that could carry astronauts much longer distances and provide a more comfortable environment for long-duration exploration. Toyota is working on a pressurized rover concept, but NASA has not released details on how that vehicle might fit into the Artemis architecture.


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