LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles-area startup founded by a veteran spaceflight robotics engineer unveiled on Thursday its full-scale, working prototype for a next-generation lunar rover that is just as fast as NASA's old "moon buggy" but is designed to do much more.
The company, Venturi Astrolab Inc, released photos and video showing its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) vehicle riding over the rugged California desert near Death Valley National Park during a five-day field test in December.
Astrolab executives say the four-wheeled, car-sized FLEX rover is designed for use in NASA's Artemis program, aimed at returning humans to the moon as early as 2025 and establishing a long-term lunar colony as a precursor to sending astronauts to Mars.
Unlike the 1970s Apollo-era moon buggies or the current generation of robotic Mars rovers tailored for specialized tasks and experiments, FLEX is designed as an all-purpose vehicle that can be driven by astronauts or by remote control.
Built around a modular payload system inspired by conventional containerized shipping, FLEX is versatile enough to be used for exploration, cargo delivery, site construction and other logistical work on the moon, the company says.
"For humanity to truly live and operate in a sustained way off Earth, there needs to exist an efficient and economical network all the way from the launch pad to the ultimate outpost," Astrolab founder and CEO Jaret Matthews said in a statement announcing the rover's development.
Other aerospace companies have announced new lunar rover design concepts, "but so far I believe, we're the only ones who have produced a working prototype of this scale and capability," Matthews told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
If NASA adopts FLEX and its modular payload platform for Artemis, it would become the first passenger-capable rover to ply the lunar surface since Apollo 17, the last of six original U.S. manned missions to the moon, in December 1972.
Apollo 17's lunar roving vehicle set a moon speed record of 11 miles per hour (17.7 km/h). FLEX can move just as swiftly.
Apollo astronauts found "they spent just as much time off the ground as on it at that speed, so it's kind of a practical limit for the moon," where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth, said Matthews, a former rover engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
While Apollo LRVs carried up to two astronauts seated at its controls like a car, FLEX passengers - one or two at a time - ride standing in the back, driving the vehicle with a joystick.
The rover itself, with a Jeep-like wheelbase, weighs just over 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) but has a 3,300-pound cargo capacity, about the same as a light-duty pickup truck.
With its solar-powered batteries fully charged, the vehicle can drive two astronauts for eight hours straight and has sufficient energy capacity to survive the extreme cold of a lunar night, up to 300 hours in total darkness, at the moon's south pole, Matthews said.
During the field test at the Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Recreation Area, the rover was piloted by retired Canadian astronaut and Astrolab advisory board member Chris Hadfield and MIT aerospace graduate student Michelle Lin.
Video showed the pair dressed in mock spacesuits riding on the vehicle over a sand dune and using it to set up a large, vertical solar array. "It was huge fun to drive the FLEX," Hadfield said in the video.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Jason Neely)