A new lunar rover design from California's Death Valley aims for the Moon

The company pitched its idea to NASA for the upcoming Artemis moon landings.
Chris Young
The FLEX prototype.Astrolab

A California startup called Astrolab developed a prototype of a lunar rover it hopes to send to the Moon as part of NASA's upcoming Artemis moon landings, a press statement reveals.

The company, backed by famous former NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield, revealed it is testing its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) vehicle for future use transporting cargo and astronauts on the Moon.

Lunar logistics

FLEX was built for the next phase of space exploration, in which humans will maintain a continuous presence on the Moon. In its statement, Astrolab says it "aims to bring to market a fleet of FLEX rovers to provide the mobility required to support a sustained human presence on the Moon and Mars."

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Its rover has the capacity to carry a 1,500 kg payload and it can be driven remotely or with two astronauts on board. The lunar rover can drive over a payload and pick it up, in a similar fashion to a warehouse robot.

"For humanity to truly live and operate in a sustained way off Earth, there needs to exist an efficient and economical transportation network all the way from the launch pad to the ultimate outpost," explained Jaret Matthews, Founder and CEO of Astrolab. "Currently, there is a gap in the last mile and Astrolab exists to fill it."

Astrolab says its vehicle meets NASA's Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) requirements, which were set out by the U.S. space agency in a bid to gain insight from the private sector on its future lunar vehicles.

New lunar rovers signal a new age of space exploration

The Astrolab team recently tested a full-scale FLEX rover prototype in the California desert near Death Valley. The company tested crewed as well as telerobotic operations, as well as the rover's mobility performance on the tricky desert terrain.

"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," said Chris Hadfield, who is an Astrolab advisory board member. "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. 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."

The vehicle will likely help usher in an exciting new era for lunar space habitats. Hadfield also explained that the Moon, if laid down flat on a map, is larger than Africa, and it is "a completely untapped geological resource." He believes that vehicles like FLEX will help us build an Earth-Moon system as outlined by NASA's plans for a lunar Gateway following the upcoming Artemis landings, which will likely take place no earlier than 2025.

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