By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
General Motors and Lockheed announced last year they were teaming up to work on a new lunar rover that would carry astronauts and their gear on the moon. Now the companies say they could develop a whole lineup of vehicles for work on the moon and that these could be available to commercial space companies, not just NASA.
The companies hope to have a vehicle ready and on the moon awaiting astronauts by 2025, GM spokesman Stuart Fowle said, when NASA plans to begin landing humans on the moon.
“New car smell and everything,” Fowle promised.
The desire to sell moon cars to multiple different customers comes with its own challenges, though. Different national space programs and for-profit companies might use different space suits, for instance. Because of that, “universal, intuitive controls and restraint systems are necessary,” the company said in an announcement published this week on its media site. Even getting enough space between the seats is vital for human survival on the moon. If the lunar astronauts get too cozy, it can end up killing them.
If their two spacesuits rubbed too close together, they could tear, “which could result in life-threatening damage,” the company said.
The companies are also discussing other possible moon vehicle variants they might work on, GM spokesman Stuart Fowle confirmed, but for now they are concentrating on just the basic moon buggy idea. He provided no details on the types of additional vehicles being discussed.
This would not be GM’s first trip to the moon. In the 1960s, GM worked with Boeing to create the original Lunar Roving Vehicle. Three of them — LRV-1, LRV-2 and LRV-3 — were driven on the moon’s surface in 1971 and 1972. As humans haven’t been back since, and the original NASA astronauts didn’t take the rovers back with them, they sit on the surface of the moon to this day.
NASA now has plans to return to the moon. GM and Lockheed announced last year they would design a new rover in hopes that NASA could use it for these new moon missions. Thanks to more advanced battery technology the new lunar rovers will be able to drive farther than the old ones, which went less than five miles on a charge.
The rovers will be important because the places scientists will want to do research on the moon’s surface will probably not be the places their spacecraft will land. Good landing spots will be big, flat and featureless. As on Earth, the most geologically interesting places on the moon will be jagged, rough and rocky. The astronauts will need to commute to their lunar workplaces with all their gear.
GM and Lockheed want the lunar rover to be able to drive autonomously. That will make it much more useful because the rover will be able to drop off cargo or astronauts at work sites and then drive back, or onward to the next location, on its own.
But even that comes with challenges. The moon isn’t mapped to the same detail as the Earth, and none of it is paved. The moon’s fine, powdery rocks can be abrasive on a car’s structural components. And to make matters worse, GM noted that back on Earth, a self-driving car with a problem can be developed and serviced by an engineer fairly easily. But on the moon, “the closest engineers will be some 238,900 miles away.”
On the other hand, traffic is anticipated to be lighter than back on our home planet, at least at first. But the companies are hoping that some technology will be able to be transferred back to Earth.
“We expect manned missions to only be a week or two of the year so [autonomous driving] tech will allow us to offer services to customers the other 50-51 weeks,” Fowle said in an email.
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