Space startup Astrolab, led by former SpaceX executive and NASA engineer Jaret Matthews, has successfully tested a prototype lunar rover that can operate telerobotically or carry around a crew of two astronauts.
A full-size prototype was recently tested in the California desert near Death Valley. The five-day field test (which included the participation of retired astronaut and orbital artist Chris Hadfield) demonstrated both the rover’s ability to carry large payloads and cope with difficult terrain.
Hadfield, also a member of Astrolab’s advisory board, was unsurprisingly optimistic about the vehicle: “It was not only a joy to drive FLEX, but also to see its size, capabilities and get an intuitive sense of what this rover can do.”
The Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover joins other proposals such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
The final version of FLEX will include a high-gain steerable antenna to maintain high-bandwidth communication with Earth and three square meters of solar panels (which can be stowed “during highly dynamic operations”) to keep the batteries topped up. In addition to the potential to carry a pair of astronauts, the trundlebot can carry three cubic meters of payload suspended below (weighing 1,000 kg).
In terms of performance, an Astrolab spokesperson said The register this week: “The nominal speed of FLEX is 15 km/h but we hope to push that a bit and set a new lunar speed record at just over 18 km/h which Eugene Cernan did in 1972.
“We anticipate that astronauts will be able to travel more than 60 km during a typical EVA, or extravehicular activity, at lower speeds, this range will be significantly extended.”
Nearly half a century has passed since a lunar rover last turned its wheels on the Moon, and NASA is looking for something from commercial industry to support its Artemis program. “As we plan for long-term exploration of the Moon, the LTV will not be your grandfather’s Moon Buggy used during the Apollo missions”, noted project manager Nathan Howard.
The unenclosed rover is expected to last at least 10 years and support multiple Artemis missions.
With actual wheels rolling across the sands of the California desert, Astrolab looks pretty advanced in terms of lunar rover development. He has teamed up with an electric vehicle specialist Venturi for batteries and materials capable of withstanding the harsh lunar environment and appears to follow the rapid, iterative development approach of companies such as SpaceX.
However, the FLEX rover (if selected by the US space agency) could wait a bit for a ride under NASA’s Moon program. The LTV is to arrive on the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis V mission (maybe in 2027, maybe a little later).
The register Astrolab asked when he felt the FLEX rover might rumble over the regolith and a spokesperson told him: “We plan to send FLEX to the Moon at the earliest possible opportunity. FLEX can enhance Artemis missions by deploying infrastructure and conducting exploration and science in advance of the arrival of astronauts.
“FLEX is sized to accommodate both HLS-class landers, such as SpaceX’s Starship, as well as several of the landers under development under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.” ®