April 12, 2024

NASA selects three companies to advance the Artemis moon rover designs

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – NASA has selected three companies to work on lunar rover concepts that would be offered as a service for Artemis moon landings and science activities.

NASA announced April 3 that it has selected teams led by Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Venturi Astrolab for its Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) Services contract. The contract includes work to design and develop rovers that would be used by astronauts on Artemis missions, starting with Artemis 5 at the end of the decade. The rovers would be provided by the companies as a service to NASA, in much the same way the agency procures spacesuits and lunar landers.

Although the LTV’s primary purpose will be to transport astronauts across the lunar surface, NASA expects the rover to also teleoperate, allowing it to conduct scientific research when astronauts are not present. “Think of a hybrid of the Apollo-style lunar rover piloted by our astronauts and an unmanned mobile science platform,” Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said at a briefing to announce the contract selections.

“The goal is to be able to do research with astronauts, move astronauts around, help them get to locations they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach, and then continue research and science after they leave,” says Jacob Bleacher. , principal investigator at NASA Headquarters.

Intuitive Machines is leading a team called Moon RACER, or Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover, which includes auto industry AVL and Michelin and Boeing and Northrop Grumman. The lander would be delivered on a Nova-D lander that Intuitive Machines is building, a larger version of the Nova-C lander it landed on the moon in February.

Intuitive Machines leads the Moon RACER rover concept selected for the LTV Services contract. Credit: Intuitive machines

Lunar Outpost, a startup currently working on four small robotic rovers, leads a team called Lunar Dawn, which includes Lockheed Martin, MDA Space, General Motors and Goodyear. While Lockheed and MDA Space will provide expertise in spacecraft design and robotics, GM will offer batteries and related automotive technologies and Goodyear tires.

Venturi Astrolab is offering its FLEX rover, a robotic version that it plans to send to the moon with a SpaceX Starship mission at the end of 2026. It collaborates with Axiom Space and Odyssey Space Research on the LTV prize.

Executives from the three winning companies didn’t provide many technical details about their rovers, in part because they still have work to do to refine their designs. “There are a number of subsystems that we introduced as an original design that will be released to market in the coming year,” said Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines. Those subsystems, he said, range from the power supply to the rover’s suspension system.

Jaret Matthews, CEO of Astrolab, noted that the company has built a full-size terrestrial prototype of its FLEX rover, which it has driven for thousands of hours, including field tests in Death Valley, California. “We’re coming into this with a lot of experience already in the technologies we want to apply here,” he said. “We intend to exceed NASA’s requirements.”

Justin Cyrus, CEO of Lunar Outpost, cited competitive factors to avoid going into details about the design other than to highlight the tires developed by Goodyear. “I’m really excited to see how they can bring some of the technology we use as part of LTVS back to Earth,” he said. “I want a set of those tires for my own off-road vehicle.”

Venturi Astrolab is developing the FLEX rover. Credit: Venturi Astrolab

Maintaining competition

Although the total LTV Services contract has a maximum value of $4.6 billion over 15 years, the three companies have so far received only small task orders for what Lara Kearney, manager of NASA’s Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program , called a ‘feasibility phase’. to mature the rovers’ designs until a preliminary design review in the coming year.

She declined to provide the value of those task orders, saying the agency was still in a procurement “blackout” period. However, Intuitive Machines said in its press release about the contract that the task order was worth $30 million.

Following these feasibility studies, NASA will solicit proposals from the three companies for a “demonstration” task order. That would support the rover’s eventual development and delivery to the moon’s south polar regions, where it would be tested remotely before the Artemis 5 mission arrives.

Kearney said NASA expects to select only one of the three companies for the demonstration task order. Thereafter, it will purchase LTV services from the company on an annual basis for both manned and unmanned rover activities.

NASA has emphasized competition in its embrace of commercial services, with two or more providers for cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the Human Landing Services program for manned Artemis landers and the development of Artemis and ISS spacesuits. However, NASA’s approach to LTV suggests it will rely on a single company.

Kearney said NASA’s current approach is “based on available budgets,” but added that there may be opportunities for future competition. “This contract mechanism is extremely flexible,” she said, with the ability to award more task orders and an on-ramp clause to attract new providers. “We have a contract mechanism that will allow companies to continue to compete for future demonstrations and service periods.”

NASA declined to disclose the number of LTV proposals it had received, citing a procurement blackout. However, entries in a federal procurement database for the contract show the agency received nine proposals but do not identify the losing bidders.

One unselected company that previously said it was interested in the LTV competition was Leidos, which unveiled a prototype of its rover design nearly a year ago and worked with both automotive and aerospace companies. Another partner was racing company NASCAR, which Leidos said he brought in because of his technical expertise and because of his experience with corporate sponsorship.

A company that develops an LTV rover for NASA will also be able to offer it to non-NASA customers. “We believe early on that NASA will have to be some sort of anchor tenant,” Kearney said. “We hope that over the ten-year life of this vehicle we can continue to attract more commercial requests as the market evolves.”

She said NASA initially expects to use 75% of the rover’s capacity for crewed or robotic operations, while the remaining 25% will be available for commercial use. Over the course of the contract, NASA expects the share of rover time to decrease as commercial demand grows.

Bleacher said he was interested in seeing how LTV could advance lunar science, either by supporting astronauts or through robotic operations. “I like to imagine the views and vistas that the LTV will allow us to see from the surface of the moon,” he said. “Its mobility will fundamentally change our view of the moon.”

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