Aerospace startup reveals new modular lunar rover to transport people and cargo to the Moon

Today, aerospace startup Venturi Astrolab unveiled its new interplanetary rover designed to ferry goods and people across the surface of the Moon – and possibly Mars. The company said it plans to build a fleet of these rovers over the next decade to help NASA and commercial companies establish a long-term presence on the Moon.

Called FLEX, for Flexible Logistics and Exploration, the rover can squat and lift payloads from the Moon’s surface, carrying them under its belly before dropping them off where they were intended. With its “modular payload concept”, it can carry many different types of objects, as long as they are built to an agreed size and shape standard. True to its FLEX name, the rover can maneuver semi-autonomously, be controlled remotely – or it can even be modified to include a crew interface, allowing astronauts to ride the rover while guiding it through lunar terrain.

According to Jaret Matthews, CEO of Astrolab, the goal of FLEX and ultimately Astrolab is to capitalize on the world’s renewed push to get people back to the Moon. Currently, NASA is working to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon through the space agency’s Artemis program. And companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing their own landers that can get people to the lunar surface. Meanwhile, various commercial companies, such as Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are building robotic lunar landers that will ferry cargo to the Moon. Matthews says he hopes the FLEX rovers will be up there when those efforts really ramp up.

“Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are solving the long-haul transportation problem, and we want to solve the local transportation problem — and ultimately set the standard for lunar logistics,” Matthews said. The edge.

Matthews has worked with rovers for a long time. He began his career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers that launched to Mars in 2003. He then moved to SpaceX, working on the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and the technology needed for it to dock with the ISS. He now brings his expertise to his new company, Astrolab, which he created with his co-founders in January 2020.

The prototype of the rover FLEX being tested in California
Image: Venturi Astrolab

Astrolab has already built a full-scale prototype of FLEX, which the company recently tested in the California desert near Death Valley, about five hours from the company’s Hawthorne headquarters. Former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who serves on Astrolab’s board of directors, even took the rover for a spin, giving his advice on how the vehicle’s design should look. The company used FLEX to pick up and deliver payloads, as well as install a vertical solar array — a critical technology needed for power in space that future lunar astronauts will likely need to install to stay on the Moon long-term. , Matthew said.

Astrolab wants FLEX to be able to carry as much cargo as possible, which is why the company opted for the modular design. Matthews compares this to how shipping containers here on Earth are made to specific international standards. He hopes we will eventually create a similar standard for cargo on the Moon. “You have all these containers sort of moving seamlessly through the global supply chain, and it’s a really efficient model where all of this infrastructure is designed to work together,” says Matthews. “So we think this approach makes sense moving forward to the Moon and Mars.”

Matthews says they learned a lot from their field trials with the FLEX prototype. Ultimately, the prototype is built for Earth terrain, so the equipment is much “beefier” than it would be for a lunar environment, which has one-sixth the gravity of our planet. The company says the final rover is expected to weigh around 1,100 pounds, or 500 kilograms, and will be built specifically to handle lunar terrain. “We want the hardware to be super rugged so they can basically ride it like they stole it and not have to worry about it,” says Matthews.

Lunar rovers face all sorts of environmental struggles, such as higher radiation and the dreaded Lunar Night, a two-week period when the Moon is shrouded in darkness and temperatures can dip below -208. degrees Fahrenheit or -130 degrees Celsius. Astrolab says FLEX will have insulation and “sufficient internal battery capacity”, allowing the rover to withstand and stay warm between 100 and 300 night hours at the Moon’s south pole. Once the sun rises again, FLEX’s external solar panels will then begin to generate electricity from light.

Once completed, FLEX can be launched on several types of rockets and landers. Matthews cites startup Astrobotic’s Griffin lander, which is supposed to carry a NASA rover to the Moon, as a potential route for FLEX. The company doesn’t say how much FLEX will cost, but Matthews says the long-term plan is to charge for rover services rather than for each individual vehicle. “We want to be the UPS, FedEx and Uber of the Moon,” he says.

Conversations have already begun with NASA, which last year issued a call for companies to submit designs for a “lunar terrain vehicle” that could carry future Artemis astronauts across the south pole of the moon. Astrolab has also reached out to potential customers, including SpaceX, which is headquartered next to Astrolab in Hawthorne. With a mission control center already built, as well as a thermal vacuum chamber for testing, Astrolab wants to send its first FLEX rovers in the coming years, testing them on the lunar surface before astronauts arrive. “Astronaut time is the world’s most valuable resource, and safety is a major concern, so you want to be able to do as many robots as possible in their absence,” says Matthews.

And it is highly likely that it will be some time before the astronauts return to the lunar surface. NASA recently moved its first landing date for Artemis to 2025, although space agency auditors say a 2026 landing is more realistic. This gives Astrolab even more time to operate the FLEX on the lunar surface.

Correction on March 10, 8:10 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article stated that Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander could carry the FLEX. This is the Griffin Lander, and the article has been updated. We regret the error.