A handout image shows a prototype of California startup Astrolab's Flex lunar rover

US start-up unveils next-gen space rover

Image credit: ASTROLAB/Handout via REUTERS

A California-based start-up has unveiled a full-scale, working prototype for a next-generation lunar rover that it says can do much more than Nasa’s old ‘Moon buggy’.

The company, Venturi Astrolab Inc, released photos and video showing its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) vehicle riding over the rugged California desert near Death Valley National Park during a five-day field test in December 2021.

Astrolab executives said they have designed the four-wheeled, car-sized FLEX rover for Nasa’s Artemis programme, aimed at returning humans to the Moon as early as 2025 and establishing a long-term lunar colony as a precursor to sending astronauts to Mars.

“For humanity to live and operate in a sustained way off Earth, there needs to exist an efficient network all the way from the launchpad to the ultimate outpost,” Astrolab founder and CEO Jaret Matthews said in a statement announcing the rover’s development.

Unlike the 1970s Apollo-era Moon buggies or the current generation of robotic Mars rovers tailored for specialised tasks and experiments, FLEX has been designed as an all-purpose vehicle that can be driven by astronauts or by remote control, according to its creators.

Built around a modular payload system inspired by conventional containerised shipping, FLEX is versatile enough to be used for exploration, cargo delivery, site construction, and other logistical work on the Moon, the company said.

Other aerospace companies have announced new lunar rover design concepts, “but so far I believe, we’re the only ones who have produced a working prototype of this scale and capability,” Matthews told news agency Reuters.

California startup Astrolab has released images of the company’s Flex lunar rover

Image credit: ASTROLAB/Handout via REUTERS

If Nasa adopts FLEX and its modular payload platform for Artemis, it will become the first passenger-capable rover to ply the lunar surface since Apollo 17, the last of six original US manned missions to the Moon, in December 1972.

Apollo 17’s lunar roving vehicle set a Moon speed record of 11 miles per hour (17.7 km/h). FLEX can move just as swiftly, according to Astrolab.

Apollo astronauts found “they spent just as much time off the ground as on it at that speed, so it’s a kind of practical limit for the Moon,” where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth, said Matthews, a former rover engineer for Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While Apollo rovers carried up to two astronauts seated at its controls like a car, FLEX passengers – one or two at a time – ride standing in the back, driving the vehicle with a joystick.

The company explained that the rover itself, with a Jeep-like wheelbase, weighs just over 1,100 pounds (500kg) but has a 3,300-pound cargo capacity, about the same as a light-duty pickup truck.

With its solar-powered batteries fully charged, the vehicle can drive two astronauts for eight hours straight and has sufficient energy capacity to survive the extreme cold of a lunar night, up to 300 hours in total darkness, at the Moon’s south pole, Matthews said.

During the field test at the Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Recreation Area, the rover was piloted by retired Canadian astronaut and Astrolab advisory board member Chris Hadfield and MIT aerospace graduate student Michelle Lin.

The video (see below) shows the pair dressed in mock spacesuits riding on the vehicle over a sand dune and using it to set up a large, vertical solar array.


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