Astrolab Tests Its Flexible Moon Buggy Concept in California Desert

Astrolab Tests Its Flexible Moon Buggy Concept in California Desert
Conceptual video showing FLEX carrying two NASA astronauts across the lunar surface. (Gif: Venturi Astrolab/Gizmodo)

It’s time to hop in and go for a ride, as Venturi Astrolab has shown off a multi-purpose lunar vehicle designed to deliver cargo, perform scientific investigations, and carry two astronauts. The California-based startup hopes NASA will eventually choose its concept for the Artemis program, as the space agency seeks to establish a long-term presence on the Moon.

NASA is preparing for the upcoming Artemis missions, but it has yet to decide on a Lunar Terrain Vehicle. Lockheed Martin and General Motors have teamed up to design an LTV, as have Northrop Grumman and AVL. We can now add Venturi Astrolab and its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover to the list of contenders.

Astrolab, staffed by former NASA and SpaceX employees, partnered with Venturi Group, a developer of electric vehicles. Founded by Jaret Matthews, the company is seeking to build not just one FLEX rover but an entire fleet, a goal the company says is needed to “support a sustained human presence on the Moon and Mars.” That the stated goal of Artemis is to do the same is not a coincidence, as Venturi Astrolab hopes to win a NASA contract as a supplier of LTVs.

Instead of rolling out custom-built rovers designed for specific missions, Venturi Astrolab aims to create a highly versatile, standardised, and modular LTV that can be adapted to all sorts of different missions. “As we transition from the Apollo era, which was focused on pure exploration, to now, where people will be living for longer periods on the Moon, the equipment needs to change,” Chris Hadfield, a former Canadian Space Agency astronaut and now an Astrolab advisory board member, said in a press release. “When we settle somewhere, we don’t just need to get people from one place to another, but we need to move hardware, cargo, life support equipment and more. And it’s all dependent on mobility.”

FLEX is capable of picking up and depositing modular payloads, which it would do in support of human operations, science, exploration, logistics, construction, and “other activities critical to a sustained presence on the Moon and beyond,” according to Astrolab’s Payload Interface Guide.

A FLEX prototype used during testing in the California desert.  (Photo: Venturi Astrolab)A FLEX prototype used during testing in the California desert. (Photo: Venturi Astrolab)

FLEX can serve as an unpressurized rover, in which two astronauts stand at the vehicle’s rear and guide it along the lunar surface. The rover can carry upwards of 2,205 pounds (1,000 kg) of cargo, and multiple rovers can work together to carry even larger payloads. Cargo can be placed either on top of the main deck or be underslung.

“We’ve designed a mobility platform that is payload agnostic so it can work within an ecosystem of transportation systems, vehicles and tools,” Matthews explained. “FLEX achieves a wide range of utility by being able to collect, transport, and deposit any payload that conforms to what will be a standard and open interface.”

Venturi Astrolab says FLEX adheres to NASA’s LTV requirements, such as supporting an eight-hour moonwalk, operability at the lunar south pole, and the ability to survive lunar nights and operate for a full decade.

The FLEX prototype was put through a series of tests. (Photo: Venturi Astrolab)The FLEX prototype was put through a series of tests. (Photo: Venturi Astrolab)

Other features include a pivoting antenna to ensure constant high-bandwidth communication with Earth, sensors to allow for autonomous function and to avoid hazards, a robotic arm and science mast similar to NASA’s Mars rovers, an adaptive suspension system, and various measures to prevent problems caused by the fine lunar dust. FLEX also has a deployable solar array which will stay pointed at the Sun while it’s roving around the Moon.

A full-scale, fully functioning prototype of FLEX has already been built. The unit was tested in the California desert near Death Valley across five days, according to Astrolab. Its crewed and robotic functions were evaluated, it was made to deploy various payloads, both big and small, and it had to traverse challenging terrain. Hadfield participated in these tests, saying “it was not only a joy to drive FLEX but also see its size, capability and get an intuitive sense of what this rover can do.”

NASA is expected to issue a request for LTV proposals in the coming months. It’s no guarantee that FLEX will be selected, as other companies are also in the mix. A lunar rover will need to be ready for the Artemis 5 mission in 2027, so NASA better get crackin’.