NASA awards contracts to three companies for new autonomous moon rovers

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NASA on Wednesday awarded contracts to three commercial space companies to develop autonomous rovers that the space agency would use to move cargo and people on the surface of the moon as it seeks to build an enduring presence there.

The rovers would allow astronauts to traverse more of the lunar surface, especially as NASA seeks to explore the lunar South Pole, where there is ice in the permanently shadowed craters. The rovers would operate even when astronauts are not on the moon — similar to how NASA’s rovers have crisscrossed Mars for years.

The difference with these moon rovers, however, is that the vehicles will be operated by the companies in partnership with NASA, and the companies would be able to pursue commercial opportunities with them as NASA seeks to help build a lunar economy.

The winning companies are Houston-based Intuitive Machines, which recently became the first commercial venture to send a spacecraft to the lunar surface; Venturi Astrolab, a start-up based outside of Los Angeles; and Lunar Outpost, based outside of Denver. Combined, the contracts have a maximum potential value of $4.6 billion over 15 years for the development of what NASA calls lunar terrain vehicles.

“As astronauts explore the south pole region of the moon during Artemis missions, they’ll be able to go farther and conduct more science than ever before, thanks to the lunar terrain vehicle,” Vanessa Wyche, the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a briefing. “Think of a hybrid of the Apollo-style lunar rover that was driven by our astronauts and an uncrewed mobile science platform. This will give the crew the capability to travel a distance much farther from their landing site. In addition, during uncrewed operations, that LTV will provide autonomous operations for science and technology.”

The awards represent another down payment by NASA on its Artemis program, which the agency hopes will not only return astronauts to the lunar surface but will build a base there.

Over the years, the space agency has invested tens of billions of dollars in the Artemis program, including development of the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew capsule, which are to carry the astronauts to the vicinity of the moon. NASA has also awarded contracts for a pair of lunar landers — being built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin — to ferry astronauts to and from the surface. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The space agency is investing in new spacesuits and new technologies, such as mining, moon habitats and energy generation, including a program from Blue Origin to transform the lunar dirt, or regolith, into solar cells.

In addition to developing technology that would allow astronauts to “live off the land” while on the moon, NASA is looking for ways to expand how much of the lunar surface they can explore. In a statement last year, NASA said it wants vehicles that astronauts “will drive to explore and sample more of the lunar surface using the LTV than they could on foot.”

“As we found on Apollo, one to two kilometers is about as far as you want to walk in a suit on the lunar surface,” Steve Munday, NASA’s LTV program manager, said in an interview last year. “So you need something else. You need to extend that range, both for transportation and for science.”

But since astronauts would be on the surface only for up to 30 days at a time, the vehicle needs to be useful without astronauts on board. Between crewed missions, the LTVs would “transport cargo and scientific payloads between crewed landing sites, enabling additional science returns, resource prospecting and lunar exploration,” the agency said in a statement.

NASA said it would pay for one of the providers to land its rover on the moon before the third human landing under Artemis. That landing is planned for the end of the decade.

Venturi Astrolab, which is partnering with Axiom Space and Odyssey Space Research, announced last year that it had signed a contract with SpaceX to deliver its vehicle, the Flexible Logistics and Exploration Rover (FLEX). It hopes to first land on the moon in 2026, said chief executive and founder Jaret Matthews.

With SpaceX’s Starship rocket and a number of new spacecraft being built to land on the moon, “we’re at a point in history now where you can actually start to contemplate industrial-scale activity happening at the lunar south pole,” Matthews said during the briefing. “And we’re trying to build a platform to support it.”

For Intuitive Machines, which is partnering with AVL, Boeing, Michelin and Northrop Grumman, the contract award is another step in expanding its work on the moon after the landing of its Odysseus spacecraft earlier this year. “It’s just an exciting next step to put the first critical piece of infrastructure on the surface” of the moon, CEO Steve Altemus said.

Lunar Outpost is developing a fleet of rovers, CEO Justin Cyrus said, and intends to send its first to the lunar surface on an Intuitive Machines spacecraft later this year. The company is teaming with Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Goodyear and MDA Space.

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