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Aerospace startup reveals designs for a bizarre moon rover that looks like a giant pram 

It may bear more of a resemblance to a giant pram, but this bizarre looking lunar rover is actually a new prototype to carry astronauts across the moon’s surface in the coming decades.

The buggy, which has been designed by aerospace startup Venturi Astrolab, will also be able to crouch down and lift payloads up from the lunar soil, before carrying them under its belly and depositing the cargo at a desired location.

It will be specifically built to handle the lunar terrain and could one day be used to ferry humans around on Mars.

Venturi Astrolab plans to assemble a fleet of the rovers over the coming years in an attempt to become ‘the UPS, FedEx, and the Uber of the moon’. 

It wants to help NASA and commercial companies establish a long-term presence on Earth’s only natural satellite but has not revealed how much the rover will cost. 

Called FLEX, for Flexible Logistics and Exploration, the rover has a ‘modular payload concept’ which allows it to carry a variety of different objects if they are built to an agreed-upon standard of size and shape. 

The buggy can be controlled remotely, manoeuvre semi-autonomously, and even be modified to include a crew interface so astronauts can ride onboard while driving it across the moon’s surface. 

Venturi Astrolab, based in Hawthorne, California, was formed by a team of industry leading planetary rover and robotics experts.

Taking a ride: California-based aerospace startup Venturi Astrolab has unveiled a lunar rover prototype for use on the moon

Called FLEX, for Flexible Logistics and Exploration, the rover has a 'modular payload concept' which allows it to carry a variety of different objects if they are built to an agreed-upon standard of size and shape. It has undergone a test drive (pictured)

Called FLEX, for Flexible Logistics and Exploration, the rover has a ‘modular payload concept’ which allows it to carry a variety of different objects if they are built to an agreed-upon standard of size and shape. It has undergone a test drive (pictured)

Retired NASA and Canadian Space Agency astronaut, engineer and author Chris Hadfield (pictured right), who is on Astrolab's board of advisers, took part in a five-day field test to give his feedback on the vehicle's design and performance

Retired NASA and Canadian Space Agency astronaut, engineer and author Chris Hadfield (pictured right), who is on Astrolab’s board of advisers, took part in a five-day field test to give his feedback on the vehicle’s design and performance

NASA’S SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM ROCKET IS THE LARGEST EVER MADE AND WILL LET HUMANS EXPLORE THE SOLAR SYSTEM 

Space Launch System, or SLS, is a launch vehicle that NASA hopes will take its astronauts back to the moon and beyond.

The rocket will have an initial lift configuration, set to launch in the early-2020’s, followed by an upgraded ‘evolved lift capability’ that can carry heavier payloads.

Space Launch System Initial Lift Capability

– Maiden flight: Mid-2020’s

– Height: 311 feet (98 metres)

– Lift: 70 metric tons

– Weight: 2.5 million kilograms (5.5 million lbs)

Space Launch System Evolved Lift Capability

– Maiden flight: Unknown

– Height: 384 feet (117 metres)

– Lift: 130 metric tons

– Weight: 2.9 million kilograms (6.5 million lbs)

 

Historically, planetary rovers have each been bespoke and have been put into operation on a timescale of roughly once per decade, the company said, and often at a cost of billions of pounds.

FLEX, it claims, is much more compatible with NASA’s ultimate goal of supporting a sustained presence on the moon and Mars because it is designed around a modular payload interface that supports intermodal transportation (from lander to rover and back).

‘For humanity to truly live and operate in a sustainable way off Earth, there needs to exist an efficient and economical transportation network all the way from the launch pad to the ultimate outpost,’ said Jaret Matthews, founder and CEO of Astrolab. 

‘Currently, there is a gap in the last mile and Astrolab exists to fill it.’

NASA is currently aiming to put the first woman and next man on the moon later this decade. However, the mission has been plagued by delays, with the target having slipped from 2024 to 2025, and is now unlikely to happen before 2026 according to US space agency regulators.

Meanwhile, billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are working to develop landers to take people to the lunar surface through their respective companies SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as considering the feasibility of longer missions to Mars. 

Other commercial firms are developing robotic craft to take cargo to the moon.

Matthews said that while SpaceX and Blue Origin work on solving the long haul transportation problem, he hopes his company Venturi Astrolab will ‘solve the local transportation problem’.

He started his career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers that were launched to Mars in 2003, before moving to SpaceX.

Matthews formed his new company with his co-founders in January 2020. 

It has already built a full-scale prototype of FLEX and recently completed a test drive in the California desert near Death Valley.

Retired NASA and Canadian Space Agency astronaut, engineer and author Chris Hadfield, who is on Astrolab’s board of advisers, took part in the five-day field test to give his feedback on the vehicle’s design and performance.

‘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,’ Hadfield said. 

‘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 aim is for FLEX to be able to carry as much cargo as possible, hence the modular design, and Matthews has likened his company’s vision of a standardised payload to how shipping containers on Earth are made to specific international standards. 

‘We’ve designed a mobility platform that is payload agnostic so it can work within an ecosystem of transportation systems, vehicles and tools,’ he added. 

Venturi Astrolab plans to assemble a fleet of the rovers over the coming years in an attempt to become 'the UPS, FedEx, and the Uber of the moon'

Venturi Astrolab plans to assemble a fleet of the rovers over the coming years in an attempt to become ‘the UPS, FedEx, and the Uber of the moon’

It will be specifically built to handle the lunar terrain and could one day be used to ferry humans around on Mars

It will be specifically built to handle the lunar terrain and could one day be used to ferry humans around on Mars

The buggy can be controlled remotely, manoeuvre semi-autonomously, and even be modified to include a crew interface so astronauts can ride onboard while driving it across the moon's surface

The buggy can be controlled remotely, manoeuvre semi-autonomously, and even be modified to include a crew interface so astronauts can ride onboard while driving it across the moon’s surface

Venturi Astrolab has already built a full-scale prototype of FLEX and recently completed a test drive in the California desert near Death Valley

Venturi Astrolab has already built a full-scale prototype of FLEX and recently completed a test drive in the California desert near Death Valley

The buggy can also crouch down and lift payloads up from the moon's surface, before carrying them under its belly and depositing the cargo at a desired location

The buggy can also crouch down and lift payloads up from the moon’s surface, before carrying them under its belly and depositing the cargo at a desired location

‘FLEX achieves a wide range of utility by being able to collect, transport, and deposit any payload that conforms to what will be a standard and open interface.’

Astrolab said the final rover should weigh about 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) and will be built specifically to handle the lunar terrain.

FLEX will also have insulation and ‘sufficient internal battery capacity’ to allow it to withstand the lunar night, a two-week period when the moon is plunged into darkness and temperatures can drop below -208° Fahrenheit (-130° Celsius).

The company said the rover will stay warm for between 100 and 300 hours of nighttime at the moon’s south pole, before using its external solar arrays to generate electricity once the sun rises again. 

Last year NASA put out a call for companies to come up with designs for a ‘lunar terrain vehicle’ that could carry future Artemis astronauts across the Moon’s south pole, and Astrolab has had discussions with the US space agency.

To find out more about FLEX, visit Astrolab’s website

Astrolab said the final rover should weigh about 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) and will be built specifically to handle the lunar terrain

Astrolab said the final rover should weigh about 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) and will be built specifically to handle the lunar terrain

FLEX will also have insulation and 'sufficient internal battery capacity' to allow it to withstand the lunar night, a two-week period when the moon is plunged into darkness and temperatures can drop below -208° Fahrenheit (-130° Celsius)

FLEX will also have insulation and ‘sufficient internal battery capacity’ to allow it to withstand the lunar night, a two-week period when the moon is plunged into darkness and temperatures can drop below -208° Fahrenheit (-130° Celsius)

NASA's crewed mission to put the first woman on the surface of the moon has been pushed back again, with the space agency saying it is unlikely before 2026

NASA’s crewed mission to put the first woman on the surface of the moon has been pushed back again, with the space agency saying it is unlikely before 2026 

NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon in 2025 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2025 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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