NASA said this week that its next-generation lunar rover won’t be anything like your grandad’s moon buggy used during the Apollo missions, but will instead be a far more technologically advanced and safer vehicle than anything that’s gone before.
The only thing is, it hasn’t been designed yet.
The space agency put out a call on Tuesday, August 31, for U.S. companies to put forward “approaches and solutions” for a lunar vehicle robust enough to transport astronauts from the lander to the moon’s South Pole.
NASA is planning to send the first woman and the first person of color to the moon by the end of the decade as part of its ambitious Artemis program. Succeeding would mark the first crewed visit since 1972 as part of the aforementioned Apollo program.
It said the design for the lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) — to give it its official name — should be an unenclosed rover that astronauts can drive across the lunar surface while wearing their spacesuits. It should also be electric-powered and built to last at least 10 years so that it can serve multiple Artemis missions.
“Most people do a lot of research before buying a car,” said Nathan Howard, project manager for the LTV at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “We’re doing extensive research for a modern space vehicle that will be provided by industry. As we plan for long-term exploration of the moon, the LTV won’t be your grandfather’s moon buggy used during the Apollo missions.”
Howard added that NASA wants the Artemis LTV to be “the ultimate terrain vehicle, with advanced power management, autonomous driving, and extreme environment technologies.”
The vehicle could also be designed for remote operation to carry cargo or science payloads between crew missions, a feature that would enable “significant science returns by combining the best of human and robotic exploration,” NASA said.
The next lunar buggy could park up outside the proposed Artemis Base Camp that’s likely to be built close to the moon’s South Pole. Here, astronauts could stay for weeks or even months at a time, in the same way as they’ve been doing at the Earth-orbiting International Space Station for the last 20 years.
The lunar South Pole is of particular interest to NASA scientists as it’s thought to contain water ice that could be used to help sustain future space missions and may reveal more about the moon’s origins. It’s also an area that’s yet to be explored by visiting astronauts.
NASA had wanted to achieve the next crewed lunar landing in 2024 but various issues that have emerged over the last few years mean the original target date is likely to slip.
The space agency recently marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 15, its fourth crewed mission to the lunar surface and the first Apollo mission to deploy a rover. Reaching a top speed of around 8 mph (12.9 kph), astronauts David Scott and James Irwin drove the 460-pound moon buggy a total of 17 miles (28 km) across the moon’s rocky ground before parking it close to their lunar module, where it remains to this day along with two other rovers left by subsequent Apollo missions.