Everything we know about the rover NASA's Artemis astronauts will drive on the Moon
The Lunar Terrain Vehicle will be vastly more capable than the rover rode by Apollo astronauts.
In August 2021, NASA revealed initial details on its plan to purchase a commercial rover which Artemis astronauts will drive on the Moon later this decade. Before soliciting proposals for the same later this year, NASA laid out the capabilities it wants this Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) to have, and sought formal input from U.S. companies on the same. At another such industry day held this August 30, followed by an online amendment, NASA has provided more details on the LTV.
Since NASA intends to sustain its return to the Moon, the LTV will not only be far more capable than the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) used by Apollo astronauts but also more sophisticated than the current crop of Mars rovers. Here’s everything we know about its desired capabilities, driven by NASA’s requirements for Artemis surface activities.
The LTV will be an unenclosed, all-electric rover that two suited astronauts can drive on the Moon for up to 20 kilometers on a 8-hour roundtrip without the rover needing a recharge. That’s roughly thrice Apollo LRV’s range and twice its drive time.
Unlike Apollo, the LTV will be used across multiple Artemis missions for at least 10 years. This means the LTV must survive frigid night-time temperatures on the Moon’s south pole every month, which can last from a few hours to 150 hours despite favorably selecting high-altitude hibernation locations. That’s better than NASA’s upcoming polar-water-studying robotic VIPER rover, which is being designed to survive complete darkness periods of about 96 hours by parking at pre-identified high-altitude spots throughout the mission.
The LTV should be able to traverse 20 degrees slopes, and in general navigate the challenging rugged terrain at the Moon’s south pole, which is where all currently planned Artemis surface missions will take place. Within its slope limit, the LTV should be able to spend up to two hours in permanently shadowed regions, where temperatures are well below -180 degrees Celsius. Combined with the same NASA requirement for (commercial) Artemis spacesuits, this sets the stage for astronauts exploring and bringing cryogenic samples of pristine, precious lunar polar volatiles to Earth for meticulous studies, an identified key priority of Artemis science. Exciting.
Given its criticality to astronauts being able to safely return to the lander or Artemis Base Camp, NASA requires LTV’s mobility to be at least single-fault tolerant, and that the rover should be able to communicate to Earth directly as well as via lunar satellite or other relays.
NASA also wants the LTV to be remotely operable from anywhere between the Moon’s surface and Earth. Furthermore, the agency desires the rover to have high autonomy. These requirements chiefly come from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to ensure efficient scientific use of the rover for when a crewed mission isn’t ongoing, which would be at least 11 months of every year for all foreseeable Artemis missions.
NASA also intends LTV to be a lunar cargo carrier. In addition to supporting a suited crew of two weighing about 550 kilograms, the LTV must transport up to 250 kilograms worth of cargo, scientific instruments, lunar samples and its tools, and technology demonstration payloads between desired points on the Moon. For non-crew traverses, the LTV would be able to carry 1,600 kilograms at reduced speeds. To that end, NASA would also like a robotic manipulator arm on the LTV for deploying science instruments, for example.
Before an Artemis crew lands, the LTV will autonomously drive to near the landing site to capture the crew’s descent and touchdown, and do the same during ascent.
NASA will publish LTV’s solicitation call later this year after which point competing U.S. companies can send in their rover design proposals. (Also later this year is the “F.13” solicitation on the agency’s ROSES-2022 Blog for science instruments to be aboard the LTV.) Here are all groups we know of who will bid to make the LTV.
Lockheed Martin is partnering with General Motors, who helped develop Apollo’s LRV, to build its LTV-class rover sporting an MDA-provided robotic arm. One of its emphasized features is conducting autonomous science operations for non-crew mission phases.
Northrop Grumman, Lunar Outpost, AVL, Michelin, and Intuitive Machines have partnered to build both crew and cargo LTV-class autonomous rovers.
Astrolab will bid their Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover. Unlike Lockheed and Northrop’s concepts, as far as we know, FLEX already has a fully-functional terrestrial prototype, which has been tested for mobility, crewed and remote operations, and for deploying a variety of large payloads.
Teledyne Brown, Sierra Space, Nissan North America, and Bridgestone revealed their partnership in April 2022 to bid their LTV-class rover.
NASA itself is building a LTV “Ground Test Unit” vehicle to accelerate maturing of technologies required for the rover as well as to make a better procurement decision.
NASA intends for the LTV to be delivered to the Moon’s south pole no earlier than August 2028, with first use starting with the Artemis V crewed mission the same year. It isn’t clear at the moment what mission will deliver the LTV. It will either be sent on a commercial lander part of the agency’s CLPS program or with Artemis V itself.
It should be noted that the LTV is just one of the two rover types part of NASA’s Artemis Base Camp, which aims to build the infrastructure necessary for four astronauts to live for at least 33-day periods on the Moon. The other rover is a pressurized, habitable one, which would enable astronauts to explore the Moon’s south pole up to 45 days at a time. NASA will presumably solicit proposals for this even more advanced vehicle at a later stage.
However, in the agency’s May 24, 2022 announcement concerning crewed lunar collaboration with JAXA, NASA mentioned potentially having “Japan’s lunar rover” on Artemis surface missions, presumably referring to the JAXA-Toyota autonomous, crewed pressurized rover that would fit the second type. This possibility was confirmed during JAXA’s presentation at the LEAG 2022 Annual Meeting. Like the LTV though, this rover too is being designed to work for at least 10 years, and enter permanently shadowed regions if traverse routes involve slopes less than 20 degrees.
P.S. NASA has made a really cool video ad for the LTV.