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NASA’s version of a remote-control machine goes way beyond anything you remember manipulating as a kid. No matter how rad that monster truck you gunned around your lawn was, it still couldn’t run around the Moon.
What NASA is looking to develop as part of its Artemis program is a lunar rover that astronauts can drive remotely from the upcoming Lunar Gateway (which will still be orbiting pretty far for a remote-control mission). Similar models could eventually be Artemis astronauts’ new ride when they land. The concept was recently revealed at the 2019 SpaceCom Expo in Houston, which highlights commercial opportunities for space exploration. This year, the Moon was obviously a huge deal.
“The conference, which operates under a Space Act Agreement with NASA, addresses the strategic issues at the forefront of the commercial space sector and the space economy,” says the SpaceCom press release on the space agency’s website.
At SpaceCom, NASA was looking for companies that create everything from cars to ATVs to autonomous mining parts and even golf carts to join forces in a public-private endeavor to build a rover that can be remotely operated on the Moon. The plan for 2024 is a 6.5–day mission that will put two astronauts on the surface of the Shackleton Crater area, where they will remotely drive the rover to extract and sample water ice from craters that are on the dark side of the Moon.
Even when humans do touch down on that gray dust for the first time in over half a century, they can’t just jump in a rover and put the pedal to the metal. Astronauts need to be within 1.8 miles of their lander, which is their oxygen source. This is why a rover powered by a remote control will be able to range much further than human boot prints will and potentially discover things way too far for an oxygen-breathing species like ourselves to reach.
An unpressurized rover that can navigate extraterrestrial territory with the press of a button will unearth much more science than a human in a spacesuit with limited ranging capability can. What the remote-control rover finds out can also have a major influence on what areas are the most ideal for building habitats and where we should put science equipment, such as solar arrays, for maximum effect. NASA’s VIPER rover is already designed to scout water ice, something we can’t live without for drinking, breathing and rocket fuel.
“NASA is committed to landing American astronauts, and tapping private innovation to get and keep humans on the Moon,” the press release stresses. “Through the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration program, innovative new technologies and systems will be used to explore more of the Moon than ever before.”
By the way, if you think it’s kind of farfetched for a company that makes golf carts to potentially design a Moon rover, VIPER is about the size of a golf cart.