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Lockheed Martin, General Motors Developing Autonomous Moon Rover

Only 5% of the Moon’s surface has been explored by humans. To reach the other 95%, NASA astronauts on the Artemis program are going to need some serious wheels.

PlasticsToday Staff

June 25, 2021

Only 5% of the Moon’s surface has been explored by humans, and to reach the other 95%, NASA astronauts on the Artemis program are going to need some serious wheels. That’s why Lockheed Martin and General Motors have teamed up to design the next generation of lunar rovers, capable of transporting astronauts across the lunar surface.

Unlike the Apollo days when the rovers only traveled four miles from the landing site, Artemis astronauts will go farther and explore more of the Moon’s surface than ever before to conduct critical scientific research. This type of mobility is a huge step — or giant leap, if you will — toward enabling and sustaining long-term exploration of the lunar surface. The science that Artemis astronauts will conduct will help NASA better understand the fundamental planetary processes underlying our solar system and will help us better protect Earth.

Not only will these vehicles be well-equipped to go the distance, but they will also be driver optional. Autonomous, self-driving systems would enable the vehicle to operate with or without humans onboard, and pave the way for future human missions, commercial payload services, and enhanced scientific utility.

“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.

A Lockheed Martin-GM rover would be able to preposition itself autonomously near a landing site prior to the astronauts’ arrival, and astronauts would have the ability to task the rover from the Human Landing System or the orbiting lunar Gateway to conduct science operations without a driver. This enables NASA to fit more science into a smaller amount of time and allow it to uncover the critical information that the other 95% of the lunar surface may hold.

Lunar off-roading.

Driving on the Moon is not your average off-roading experience. The new lunar rover concept would be expertly outfitted to drive over rugged terrain in the dark and cold.

Unlike Earth and even Mars, days and nights on the Moon are just under 14 days long. The Lockheed Martin-GM rovers would be designed to survive and even operate in the two-week-long night that sees temperatures drop to –280°F, and day-time temperatures soar to 260°F.

“The biggest difference is, when you design for the Moon and for space applications, the force of gravity is different and has to be taken into account,” said Madhu Raghavan, Global Research & Development Group Manager at GM. “There are extreme temperature swings, and the radiation in space becomes a challenge in terms of systems design. You’re also operating in a vacuum and designing your systems to withstand the shock of the actual launch.”

The vehicles’ design would expertly mitigate these challenges. Lockheed Martin has built multiple deep-space robotic spacecraft that have gone to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, asteroids, comets, and other destinations throughout the solar system.

“We’ve led missions to other planetary bodies for decades, building spacecraft that can survive the high radiation environment, cold temperatures, and yet be very light and reliable,” said Kirk Shireman, Vice President, Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin. “This is what we specialize in, and we are more than capable of meeting and exceeding this challenge for NASA.”

Lockheed Martin, GM form dynamic duo.

Lockheed Martin will lead the team by leveraging its legacy and history working with NASA. “Our goal is to build a vehicle that is affordable, that exceeds our customer requirements, and to do it rapidly. Digital tools are how we achieve that,” Shireman said. “We’ve demonstrated already across programs and proposals the speed, affordability, and reliability that digital tools enable, and we fully expect to leverage and expand on that experience with this program.”

GM brings to the table decades of experience designing for on- and off-road environments, a strong focus on quality and human safety, and a shared mission.

“There’s a lot of synergy between our two companies — we complement each other well,” said Jeff Ryder, Vice President, Growth & Strategy at GM Defense. “The lunar rover designs for extreme off-road environments have a lot of similarities with our tactical military vehicles on the GM Defense side. It’s great to work with a company like Lockheed Martin that has a shared mission of supporting the warfighter.”

GM brings to the table state-of-the-art battery-electric technologies and propulsion systems that are central to the company’s extensive electric-vehicle strategy. Research from the development of battery and power systems for the lunar rover may ultimately spur advances on electric vehicles back on Earth, too.

“Because the operating conditions are so extreme in space, our work on this project will help us make safer and better batteries back on Earth,” Raghavan said. “The Moon and Mars are, of course, totally unstructured, unlined roads. Designing for that environment will ultimately just make our EV capabilities on Earth that much stronger.”

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