May 27, 2024

A Jeep Wrangler-sized rover is heading to the moon, and it’s going to have to travel a long way to get there.

Astrolab Inc., a small startup that is building rovers, has chosen its largest vehicle yet: Starship, the new giant spacecraft being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company.

On Friday, Astrolab announced that it has signed an agreement with SpaceX for its Flexible Logistics and Exploration Rover (FLEX) as the payload for an uncrewed Starship cargo mission that will take off as early as mid-2026.

“This is SpaceX’s first commercial cargo contract to the lunar surface,” said Jaret Matthews, founder and CEO of Astrolab.

SpaceX, which did not respond to a request for comment, has not yet announced that it is planning this commercial Starship mission to the lunar surface, to the Antarctic region. Mr Matthews said Astrolab would be just one of the customers sharing Starship’s massive cargo bay.

Mr. Matthews, an engineer who has worked at SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, founded Astrolab less than four years ago. It’s a stone’s throw from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., and has about 20 full-time employees, he said.

While the Soviet Union has sent robotic rovers to the moon in the 1970s and more recently China, the US has yet to send anyone. (NASA did put wheels on the moon with the “lunatic rovers” that astronauts drove during Apollo 15, 16, and 17.)

Next year, NASA will send its Volatile Matter Investigation Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will search for water ice in the lunar south polar region. Astronauts will explore this area in the coming years as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

In contrast, Astrolab’s trip to the Moon is, at least for now, a fully commercial venture with no funding from NASA.

Mr Matthews declined to say how much it would cost to send FLEX to the moon, or how much money Astrolab had raised. Astrolab will make money by lifting and deploying cargo for customers on the lunar surface, he said. This may include scientific instruments. In the future, rovers could help build lunar infrastructure.

“Essentially providing what I like to call the last mile of mobility on the moon,” Mr Matthews said. “You can think of it as UPS serving the moon. In this analogy, Starship is the container ship crossing the ocean, and we are the local distribution solution.”

A robotic arm on the rover can help set up the payload on the ground. The mass of the rover and all cargo will exceed two metric tons. The FLEX rover is a little bigger than NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, and it’s also much faster, reaching a top speed of 15 mph.

Mr Matthews said Astrolab had signed several payload agreements.

That appears to be part of Starship’s expanding addressable market. SpaceX plans to use it to launch its second-generation Starlink internet communications satellite. Wealthy space tourists have chartered two flights past the moon (but not land). A longtime dream of Mr Musk is to have a fleet of starships to ferry settlers to Mars.

For NASA, Starship is how its astronauts land on the moon during the Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for 2025. Before then, SpaceX will conduct an uncrewed flight to demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to land and land on the moon.

If those timelines hold, a commercial cargo mission with the Astrolab rover could happen next year.

Astrolab hopes the later FLEX rover will win future business from NASA, which is turning to commercial companies to provide astronauts with lunar terrain vehicles—essentially a 21st-century version of the Apollo lunar lander. Much larger companies such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are also expected to compete for the contract.

Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who advised Astrolab, helped conduct some field tests of a passenger prototype of the FLEX rover near Death Valley, California. “So not only is it a really cool concept, but it’s a well-tested vehicle now,” he said.

Looking further into the future, the company has a grander vision. “Ultimately our goal is to have a fleet of rovers on the Moon and Mars,” Mr Matthews said. “And I really think I think these vehicles will end up being catalysts for the extraterrestrial economy.”

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