Lockheed Martin and General Motors (GM) announced a partnership on Wednesday, May 26, to design and develop the next generation lunar vehicle that NASA astronauts could potentially use on their upcoming missions to the Moon starting in 2024.
GM announced the partnership by teasing everyone with a bitesized trailer on YouTube of imagined lunar scenes and astronauts zipping along the Moon's rocky surface in an open-door vehicle akin to one of GM's Hummers or even Tesla's Cybertruck.
If these illustrations are anything to go by, we can expect some even more exciting lunar activity — not that we needed much more enticement. These new lunar rovers will certainly be a big update from the electric lunar buggies GM helped develop for the Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17. And Lockheed Martin needs no introduction to the space industry, given its long-standing innovation success.
Lunar exploration and autonomous driving
The Lockheed Martin and GM team hopes that its future electric lunar rover will be able to "enable and sustain long-term exploration of the lunar surface," as Lockheed Martin wrote in its statement.
Not only will these vehicles be able to travel long distances, carrying astronauts, payloads, and more, they'll also be able to drive autonomously.
"These next-generation rover concepts will dramatically extend the exploration range of astronauts as they perform high-priority science investigation on the Moon that will ultimately impact humanity’s understanding of our place in the solar system," said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president, Lockheed Martin Space.
NASA hasn't officially offered the GM and Lockheed Martin partners a contract, but the hope is that once they have their vehicles at-the-ready, they'll be the first poised at the start line. NASA sent out a call to the industry last year for submissions of ideas for lunar rovers, so time will tell if the GM and Lockheed Martin team will be awarded a contract.
Designing a Moon-worthy vehicle
Creating a vehicle that can safely and properly drive on the Moon's surface is no easy task. Firstly, the Moon's surface is anything but smooth. Secondly, they'd have to be able to survive for the Moon's 14-day long days and nights when temperatures plummet to -280 degrees Fahrenheit (-173 degrees Celcius) and rocket up to 260 Fahrenheit (126 Celcius). Thirdly, radiation in space creates challenges for systems designs.
"You’re also operating in a vacuum and designing your systems to withstand the shock of the actual launch," explained Madhu Raghavan, Global Research & Development Group Manager at GM.
But, it's nothing GM and Lockheed Martin can't get past. Lockheed Martin knows what it's doing up there, given they've built a number of deep space robotic spacecraft, and GM knows what it's doing when it comes to designing on- and off-road vehicles, and EV tech.
"I always think about alliances, and how you have to start with something real," Jeff Ryder, vice president, Growth & Strategy at GM Defense said. "As we go do this, it’ll likely lead to additional opportunities. It’s a great pathway going forward, and I’m sure there will be more opportunities for our two companies to come together to further human spaceflight."