Plenty of automakers make off-road vehicles. Toyota is looking to make one for off-world use.
The carmaker announced Tuesday that it is teaming up with Japan’s national space agency to develop and build a moon rover that future astronauts will use to explore the lunar surface.
Unlike the trio of bare-bones NASA rovers that Apollo astronauts steered across the lunar surface in the 1970s, the proposed rover will have an enclosed, pressurized cabin. In artist renderings, the vehicle looks a bit like a big off-world SUV.
“Manned, pressurized rovers will be an important element supporting human lunar exploration, which we envision will take place in the 2030s,” Koichi Wakata, vice-president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said in a written statement. He said the space agency aims to launch the new rover in 2029.
The rover will be about 20 feet long and 17 feet wide, and will feature a 140-cubic-foot cabin capable of accommodating two passengers — four in an emergency. It will be powered by fuel cell technology similar to what's used in some of Toyota’s earthbound vehicles. Fuel cells run on oxygen and hydrogen and emit only water.
The rover will have a range of more than 6,200 miles, according to Toyota. That represents a big improvement over the NASA lunar buggies brought to the moon on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. Those electric vehicles were designed only for short trips; Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidt set the distance record, driving their rover a total of 22.3 miles on three separate outings in December 1972.
“The Apollo astronauts had to return back to their lander each night, so they could only drive a certain distance before having to turn back around,” Brent Garry, a geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told NBC News MACH in an email. “The pressurized rover is more like a lunar RV. The crews can drive and work ‘all day,’ then eat and sleep inside without having to spend precious time driving back to the lander every time.”
In 2009, Garry spent 14 days living in a prototype lunar rover as part of a NASA experiment known as Desert RATS. That field test, conducted in the Arizona desert, was designed to evaluate several robot technologies.
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