By | March 31, 2023
Astrolab to send rover to moon on SpaceX's Starship

WASHINGTON — Lunar rover developer Astrolab has signed a deal with SpaceX to transport its first rover to the moon on a future Starship flight.

Astrolab said it has arranged to fly the Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover it is developing as a payload on a Starship lunar lander mission scheduled for as soon as mid-2026. The companies did not disclose the value of the deal, which Astrolab says is the first commercial contract SpaceX has signed for the delivery of lunar cargo.

Astrolab founder and CEO Jaret Matthews said in an interview that the mission, which will include 1,000 kilograms of customer payloads, will be the first flight of the FLEX rover. It will be a portable payload on a Starship mission that lands somewhere in the south polar region of the Moon.

“Because our rover can pass up to a couple of thousand kilometers in a given year, we are less sensitive to exactly where we land,” he said. “‘It’s definitely optimized for the South Pole because that’s basically where we think the bulk of the activity is going to be.’

Astrolab has not disclosed specific customers for the mission, but he said they have a variety of planned applications, from resource utilization to data. “We take care of the core functions of mobility, navigation, communication and power, and that allows them to really focus on what they specifically want to achieve,” he said, adding that Astrolab expects to announce details about its customers in the coming months.

The company presented its plans for FLEX a year ago after conducting tests of a prototype in the California desert. The design is now at about the preliminary design review stage of maturity, Matthews said, with particular focus on a robotic arm for the rover that has six degrees of freedom for deploying instruments or other payloads.

He emphasized the benefits of the rover’s modular design to potential customers. “This modular concept allows us to have adaptive utility,” he said. “You land new gear or new cargo over time, and it refreshes, it renews what you can do with the platform. That’s our big difference.”

Astrolab is preparing to offer FLEX to NASA for the agency’s upcoming Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) competition. NASA is expected to issue a call for tenders in May for the LTV, which will be used by astronauts on missions starting with Artemis 5 in the late 2020s and can be controlled robotically between human landings.

“We’re excited about that program. It aligns well with what we do,” Matthews said. “We’re definitely going to throw our hat in the ring.” He added that he hopes NASA pursues a service model for the LTV program, much like it has done with the Human Landing System landers.

Astrolab now has more than 20 full-time employees along with strategic partnerships that he said allow the company “to punch way above our weight” especially for the upcoming LTV competition, where major aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have announced plans to offer rovers to NASA. “It will allow us to be first to market with this service.”

Astrolab has not disclosed how much money it has raised, but Matthews raised the possibility of being able to finance the development of FLEX through customer contracts. “We hope that that revenue stream will allow us to execute this plan, perhaps without necessarily having to raise,” he said. But, he added, “to the extent that investors are interested in what we’re doing, we’re more than happy to talk to them.”


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