NASA chooses 3 companies to design a lunar rover that could allow Artemis astronauts to ride on the moon

By | April 4, 2024

NASA’s next moon vehicle is starting to take shape.

The agency has selected three private teams – led by the companies Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Venturi Astrolab respectively – to develop their versions of the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV), the rover that will carry Artemis astronauts around the moon’s southern polar region to ride. by 2030.

“We look forward to developing the Artemis generation lunar exploration vehicle to help us advance what we learn on the moon,” Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, said in a statement today . “This vehicle will greatly enhance our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface, while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions.”

Related: NASA’s new moon car for Artemis will be inspired by Mars rovers

artist's concept of a gray, four-wheeled, astronaut-powered rover on the moon

artist’s concept of a gray, four-wheeled, astronaut-powered rover on the moon

Each team will continue to develop its rover concept over the next 12 months, under a “feasibility order” from the agency. The teams will then be eligible to compete in another NASA task order: an assignment to build their vehicle and deliver it to the moon in a key demonstration ahead of the Artemis 5 mission, currently scheduled for launch in March 2030 .

“NASA expects to award only one provider for the demonstration,” agency officials wrote in today’s statement. “NASA will issue additional task orders through 2039 to ensure unpressurized rover capabilities for the agency’s lunar walking and scientific exploration needs.”

As noted in that statement, NASA will purchase rover services, not the actual LTV(s). The setup is similar to the contracts the agency signed with SpaceX for cargo and crew delivery services to the International Space Station, which the company accomplishes with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

The total potential value of the LTV services contract is $4.6 billion at all prices, NASA said in today’s statement. The selected team or teams will be responsible not only for building their rover, but also for getting it to the moon’s south polar region.

artwork of a four-wheeled rover driving on the moon at night.artwork of a four-wheeled rover driving on the moon at night.

artwork of a four-wheeled rover driving on the moon at night.

The LTV will be the United States’ first lunar vehicle since the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which debuted in 1971 during the Apollo 15 mission.

The new machine will be similar in some ways to that famous “moon buggy”. For example, it will be unpressurized, meaning astronauts riding it will have to keep their space suits on. It will also be a two-person vehicle, like the Apollo rover.

an astronaut in a spacesuit driving a car-like vehicle without a roofan astronaut in a spacesuit driving a car-like vehicle without a roof

an astronaut in a spacesuit driving a car-like vehicle without a roof

But the Artemis car will be different in some important ways. Most importantly, it can move without anyone in the driver’s seat, something the old moon buggy couldn’t do.

The LTV “will support astronaut-driven stages and stages as an unmanned mobile science exploration platform, similar to NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers,” NASA officials wrote in a May 2023 statement. “This will enable continued science achievements even if there are no crews on the lunar surface.”

Artistic illustration of a white lunar rover driving on the lunar surface with a white spaceship and Earth in the background.Artistic illustration of a white lunar rover driving on the lunar surface with a white spaceship and Earth in the background.

Artistic illustration of a white lunar rover driving on the lunar surface with a white spaceship and Earth in the background.

That work will take place near the moon’s south pole, where NASA plans to establish one or more Artemis bases. This part of the moon is believed to contain large amounts of water ice, which, if sufficiently accessible, could be used for life support for astronauts and also processed into rocket fuel.

NASA has launched one Artemis mission so far: Artemis 1, which sent an unmanned Orion capsule to lunar orbit (and back) in late 2022. Artemis 2 will launch four astronauts around the moon in September 2025, and Artemis 3 will put on boots a year later near the moon’s south pole, if all goes as planned.

NASA wants to have an LTV on the moon before the Artemis 5 crew arrives in 2030. But if it’s ready before then, so much the better.

“If they can get there sooner, we will get there sooner,” Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at JSC, said at a press conference this afternoon.

Related: NASA’s Artemis Program: Everything You Need to Know

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The wheels of LTV development started turning in February 2020, when NASA asked industry to submit ideas for the nation’s next lunar vehicle.

The agency requested additional input in August 2021. NASA then issued its official request for LTV proposals on May 26 last year, with a submission deadline of July 10. The agency originally planned to sift the pool in November, but postponed the decision day by four months, until today.

One of the companies that made this first major cut – Houston-based Intuitive Machines – has already sent a vehicle to the moon. In February, Intuitive Machines’ robotic Odysseus lander became the first private spacecraft to ever make a soft moon landing. Odysseus achieved that milestone under another NASA contract, awarded through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

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