More than half a century after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the next vehicle to explore the lunar landscape could be powered by the same Ultium batteries underpinning General Motors’ coming lineup of electric vehicles and share off-roading characteristics with the GMC Hummer EV.
GM and Lockheed Martin’s lunar terrain vehicle, if selected, would be a critical part of NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions to return to the moon for the first time since 1972.
The GM-Lockheed partnership will compete against a number of contenders for the Artemis contract, including Nissan North America, which partnered with Sierra Space and Teledyne to design a lunar terrain vehicle.
In 1971, NASA launched a moon exploration vehicle built by GM and Boeing for the Apollo missions. GM and Lockheed designers and engineers studied their predecessors’ work before starting their own. GM’s Artemis team simulated the original rover into a virtual lunar environment and designed the latest vehicle on top of it, said Brent Deep, GM’s chief engineer for the lunar mobility program.
“They were spot-on with their designs,” he said. “I’m proud just to be a piece of what they were back in the day and try and strive to make things a little bit better, a little bit safer, and bringing more technology to that world.”
The lunar terrain vehicle for Artemis must be able to last at least 10 years in space and span multiple missions.
The first Artemis mission could launch this year, followed by several more complex missions through mid-decade.
The vehicle would have to operate in temperatures ranging from 260 to minus-280 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Lockheed. On the moon, there are 14 straight days of darkness followed by 14 days of daylight. Gravity is about one-sixth as powerful as on earth, and abrasive lunar dust can tarnish astronauts’ space suits and equipment.
“You’ve got to create a completely new specification because no one’s ever done a durability environment for the moon,” Deep said.
“We’re going to push our Ultium batteries into the harshest environment that an electric vehicle battery has ever seen. With that, we’ll understand how to control our batteries and make sure that they operate in that environment and continue to offer autonomous and human-operated driving capability and reliability. And then those same batteries will be in our Ultium products here on Earth.”
Much of the virtual testing GM has been using for the lunar mission was established for the 2022 GMC Hummer EV pickup.
The Hummer was developed largely through simulations during the coronavirus pandemic over just two years, compared with three to four years for most vehicle programs.
The Hummer “has a lot of the characteristics of what a lunar rover will be, tamed down,” Deep said.
“For the lunar rover, you can’t have a physical backup on some of these things because you can’t go drive a vehicle on the moon. Having that confidence from the virtual development on Hummer gives you a direct application to the lunar rover.”
GM and Lockheed designed the lunar vehicle to travel across the uneven surface of the moon by harnessing the Hummer’s off-roading capability, said Jeff Nield, design director at GM.
“We have to be able to traverse across craters and boulders. It’s a combination of very hard rock surfaces and then very soft, fine powder,” Nield said. “On Earth, you have soil and sand and rock, but lunar powder is even more fine than sand.”
Navigating the lunar surface also could help advance GM’s autonomous technology on Earth, said Lisa Talarico, program engineering manager. Today, autonomous systems are guided by an existing road map, and they have to navigate obstacles such as pedestrians and other cars making unexpected moves.
On the moon, GM can create a map as the vehicle drives.
“We can give the astronaut more information on what is the best way to get to a certain location, what is the optimal path, what would the AV side path take if the astronaut wasn’t driving,” she said. “Because we’re off-road and there’s more freedom in where you can travel versus staying directly just in your lane on your road here on Earth.”
GM expects a variety of space vehicles will be needed beyond the Artemis program, and the automaker plans to be at the forefront.
“I think that this initial rover is really only the beginning for us,” Nield said. “Once we establish an infrastructure up there, and we have deployed this first round of rovers, it could be a family of vehicles. We’ll get into upgrades and replacements and enhancements, and hopefully it’s something that continues infinitely.”