With NASA heading back to the lunar surface in the next few years, the agency is calling on private firms big and small to help design all of the necessary infrastructure to make it happen.
While spaceflight giant SpaceX already has a contract to build a lunar lander for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, a smaller but no less ambitious startup called Astrolab is working hard on the creation of a rover that it hopes will one day roll across the lunar surface.
California-based Astrolab has already built a prototype of its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover, with former astronaut Chris Hadfield taking it for a test drive across the otherworldly terrain of Dumont Dunes — an OHV recreation area just outside of Death Valley National Park.
Astrolab says FLEX is the most versatile rover ever created, and after watching animations (below) demonstrating how the rover could one day function on the moon, the ambitious claim is hard to dismiss.
The vehicle’s versatility allows FLEX to carry not only astronauts but also pick up and deposit different types of cargo. With NASA keen on building facilities to enable long-term stays on the moon, the ability to efficiently transport cargo across the lunar surface is key to its plans.
FLEX has semi-autonomous driving capabilities, too, and can be operated remotely, or by astronauts riding aboard the vehicle. It also features a robotic arm and a remote science arm to support logistics operations and research activities.
Astrolab’s rover comes with articulating limbs to keep the chassis level in challenging terrain, allowing it to absorb impacts to create a smooth ride for the astronauts and to protect payloads.
The startup is planning to submit FLEX as a proposal when NASA puts out a call for lunar rover designs, possibly in the next few months. If accepted, the rover could support the crewed Artemis III mission that’s set to put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface in the first such mission in 50 years.
“As we transition from the Apollo era, which was focused on pure exploration, to now, where people will be living for longer periods on the moon, the equipment needs to change,” Chris Hadfield said this week. “When we settle somewhere, we don’t just need to get people from one place to another, but we need to move hardware, cargo, life support equipment, and more. And it’s all dependent on mobility.”
The experienced astronaut added: “It was not only a joy to drive FLEX but also see its size, capability, and get an intuitive sense of what this rover can do.”
**An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the test drive happened in Death Valley, not Dumont Dunes. The error has since been amended.
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