NASA is seeking bids for a new autonomous lunar rover

Comment on this storyComment

As part of its campaign to get astronauts back to the moon, NASA has placed orders for new lunar landers, new spacesuits and even a space station to orbit the moon. Next up: new wheels.

NASA has opened a competition to build a lunar vehicle that would represent a cross between the Apollo-era “moon buggy” that astronauts drove on the lunar surface and the remote-controlled robotic rovers that have been in service on Mars for years.

Dubbed the “Lunar Terrain Vehicle,” the rover would play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to create the infrastructure on and around the lunar surface that would allow for a long-term and sustainable human presence. To achieve this, the space agency is working on developing sources of energy on the moon, as well as technologies that would allow astronauts to “live off the land” by mining lunar resources and even using the moon’s regolith, or lunar dust, to create building blocks with which habitats can be created.

Transportation is also a key component. In a statement last week, NASA said it wants vehicles that will allow astronauts “to use the LTV to explore and sample more of the lunar surface than is possible on foot.”

The moon waves again. NASA wants to stay this time.

“As we found at Apollo, one to two kilometers is about as far as you would want to walk on the lunar surface in a suit,” Steve Munday, NASA’s LTV program manager, said in an interview. “So you need something else. They need to expand this area, both for transportation and for science.”

However, since astronauts would only be on the surface for up to 30 days at a time, the vehicle should be useful even without astronauts on board. Between manned missions, the LTVs would be used to “transport cargo and scientific payloads between manned landing sites, enabling additional scientific yields, resource searches and lunar exploration,” the agency said in a statement.

On various missions, NASA will pay to use the rover for their purposes. “But then in the other months of the year it will be up to the provider to commercialize it,” Munday said. “So not only are we leveraging commercial innovation, we’re also helping to drive this emerging lunar economy.”

Paying customers could include companies conducting scientific experiments on the moon or searching for resources.

NASA intends to deploy the lunar rover with astronauts beginning on the third manned space mission of its Artemis program — known as Artemis V — which is expected to begin in 2029. Until then, however, the rover would be used for unmanned and potential commercial activities.

NASA also plans to send its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the moon as early as the end of next year. According to NASA, it would explore the moon’s south pole as part of a 100-day mission to look for water on the moon and help NASA decide how best to access it.

One of the companies looking to come first in the LTV competition is a startup called Venturi Astrolab, founded by Jaret Matthews, a former engineer at SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Earlier this year, the company announced that it had signed a deal with SpaceX to supply its land vehicle, the Flexible Logistics and Exploration Rover (FLEX). The mission is scheduled to take place as early as mid-2026 and would be the first commercial excursion of SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which NASA also plans to use to ferry its astronauts to and from the lunar surface for the first two landings under Artemis.

As the name suggests, the Rover is designed to be flexible. Its modular design will allow it to swap out payloads and serve different missions over time, Matthews said. Venturi Astrolab said it has signed agreements for commercial payloads, but did not provide details.

“It’s really about ultimately enabling a persistent human presence and everything that goes with it,” Matthews said in an interview. “Just as the International Space Station is constantly supplied with consumables, so should the first few decades of lunar operation. And this is exactly where we see ourselves: We serve this market.”

Other bidders include some of the aerospace industry’s biggest names working with automakers, including Lockheed Martin and General Motors, a partnership the companies said would bring extraordinary expertise given the moon’s harsh environment. For the Artemis missions, NASA wants to explore the south pole of the moon, where there is water in the form of ice. But there are also bitterly cold nights that can last up to 14 days.

“What we are demanding today is something that is extremely capable,” said Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s lunar exploration campaign. “It will be autonomous. One of the great things is that it can survive the moonlit nights, which are long and very, very cold. And electronics don’t like it very, very cold.”

Defense group Leidos merges with NASCAR. Sierra Space is working with Teledyne Brown Engineering and Nissan. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, is in talks to work with Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company that also builds a lunar module.

“Such unconventional partnerships [are] “It’s very encouraging for the type of innovation and variety of designs we’re able to get for this proposal,” Munday said.

Order placement is expected in November.