California startup Astrolab unveils a space rover, more than just a ‘moon buggy’

California startup Astrolab has released images of the company's Flex lunar rover
A handout image shows a prototype of California startup Astrolab’s Flex lunar rover, which can be directly piloted by astronauts on the Moon or remotely piloted by NASA engineers on Earth, and will be tested and preserved at Death Valley National Park in the Dumont Dunes in December 2021 by Reuters on March 10, 2022.

March 11, 2022

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A Los Angeles-area startup founded by a veteran aerospace robotics engineer on Thursday unveiled its full-fledged, working prototype for a next-generation lunar rover that’s just as fast as the old “moon buggy.” ‘ by NASA, but it’s designed to do a lot more.

Venturi Astrolab Inc. released photos and videos showing its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) vehicle driving across the rugged California desert near Death Valley National Park during a five-day field test in December.

According to Astrolab executives, the four-wheeled, car-sized FLEX rover is designed for use in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon as early as 2025 and establish a long-term lunar colony as a precursor to sending astronauts to Mars.

Unlike the Apollo-era lunar buggies of the 1970s or the current generation of robotic Mars rovers tailored for specific tasks and experiments, FLEX is designed as a general-purpose vehicle that can be driven by astronauts or controlled remotely.

Built around a modular payload system inspired by conventional container shipping, FLEX is versatile enough to be used for exploration, cargo delivery, site construction and other logistical work on the moon, the company says.

“In order for humanity to truly sustainably live and operate beyond Earth, there must be an efficient and economical network from the launch pad to the ultimate outpost,” said Jaret Matthews, Astrolab’s founder and CEO, in a statement announcing the rover’s development.

If NASA adopts FLEX and its modular payload platform for Artemis, it would be the first passenger-capable rover to fly the lunar surface since Apollo 17, the last of six originally manned US missions to the Moon, in December 1972.

The Apollo 17 lunar vehicle set a lunar speed record of 17.7 km/h (11 miles per hour). FLEX can move just as fast.

Apollo’s astronauts found that “at this speed they spent as much time above the ground as on it, so it’s kind of a practical limit for the moon,” where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth, Matthews, a former rover engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Reuters said in an interview on Wednesday.

While Apollo LRVs carry up to two astronauts, seated at their controls like a car, FLEX passengers—up to two at a time—ride while standing in the back and control the vehicle with a joystick that each astronaut can maneuver.

The Rover itself, with the approximate wheelbase of a Jeep, weighs just over 500 kilograms but has a cargo capacity of 3,300 pounds, about the same as a light pickup truck.

With its fully charged solar-powered battery, the vehicle can run for eight hours with astronauts on board and has enough energy capacity to survive the extreme cold of a moonlit night for up to 300 hours in total darkness at the moon’s south pole, Matthews said.

During the FLEX field test at the Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Recreation Area north of Baker, California, adjacent to Death Valley, the rover was piloted by retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is a member of the Astrolab Advisory Board, and the MIT Aerospace and Research Institute Space student Michelle pilots Lin.

The video showed the couple in mock space suits driving the vehicle over a sand dune and using it to transport and set up a large vertical solar array.

“It was great fun driving the FLEX,” Hadfield said in the video.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles) California startup Astrolab unveils a space rover, more than just a ‘moon buggy’

Emma Bowman

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