When astronauts return to the surface of the moon in 2025, they will find a car waiting to pick them up. The new lunar mobility vehicle, designed and built by Lockheed Martin and GM with tires by Goodyear, will be sent up prior to the humans—but more excitingly, it will stay there long after they leave. In fact, the vehicle will remain on the moon for many years, performing experiments and fulfilling commercial contracts autonomously in between NASA missions.
We were delighted to learn all this and more in a recent interview with Kirk Shireman, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for the Lunar Exploration Campaign, who told us all about the astonishing technology involved. Here’s what we learned about the vehicle, which will be the first on the moon since 1972. Though those rovers were the “finest technology” of their day, as Shireman says, the new lunar vehicle is certainly the finest of ours.
The new design: To withstand the moon’s environment for years on end, the vehicle will require state-of-the-art components and materials. The companies are still in the “materials selection phase,” says Shireman, but he did share several of the broad requirements.
- The vehicle will use the latest in battery technology, allowing it to power down almost completely during the long, frigid lunar night (which, like a lunar day, lasts for 14 Earth days). Temperatures will range from -280 degrees Fahrenheit at night to 260 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
- Not only must the materials hold up under the temperature shifts, which occur very rapidly, they must also withstand the sharp, abrasive electrostatic dust that “clings to everything,” says Shireman.
- In addition, the vehicle must be light—it’s tough to transport things to the lunar surface, and every ounce counts.
- And last, safety is of course paramount; the vehicle must be easy to enter and exit for the astronauts. The vehicle’s speed will top out at about 12 mph, also for safety reasons.
Testing: The moon has only one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity, and it’s pretty much impossible to simulate driving in such conditions while here on Earth. The engineers must rely on virtual reality as well as some physical tests, Shireman explains.
- GM’s “driver in the loop” simulator fulfills this function, allowing engineers to “drive” in the environment and gravity of the moon. (Shireman, who recently tried out the simulator, tells us that it is extremely challenging.)
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