Big rover aims to look like ‘UPS for the Moon’
A rover the size of a Jeep Wrangler is heading for the moon, and it’s going to take a long trip to get there.
Astrolab Inc., the small start-up building the rover, chose the biggest ride possible: Starship, the giant new spacecraft being developed by Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX.
On Friday, Astrolab announced that it had signed an agreement with SpaceX for its Flexible Logistics and Exploration Rover, or FLEX, to be a payload on an uncrewed Starship cargo mission slated for liftoff as soon as mid-2026.
“This is SpaceX’s first commercial cargo contract to the lunar surface,” said Jaret Matthews, founder and CEO of Astrolab.
SpaceX, which did not respond to requests for comment, has not yet announced that it is planning this commercial Starship mission to the surface of the moon, heading for the south polar region. Astrolab would be just one of the customers sharing the bulky cargo compartment of the Starship flight, Mr Matthews said.
Mr. Matthews, an engineer who previously worked at SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, founded Astrolab less than four years ago. Located a stone’s throw from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., it has about 20 full-time employees, he said.
Although the Soviet Union in the 1970s and more recently China landed mobile robots on the Moon, the United States has yet to send any. (NASA put wheels on the moon with the “moon buggy” that astronauts rode during Apollo 15, 16 and 17.)
Next year, NASA sends its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to search for water ice in the lunar south polar region. This is the area that astronauts will explore for years to come as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
In contrast, Astrolab’s lunar travel is, at least for now, a fully commercial venture with no NASA funding.
Mr Matthews declined to say how much it would cost to get FLEX to the moon or how much money Astrolab has raised. He said Astrolab would make money lifting and deploying goods for customers on the lunar surface. This could include scientific instruments. In the future, the rover could help build lunar infrastructure.
“Essentially providing what I like to call last-mile mobility on the moon,” Mr. Matthews said. “You can kind of think of it like being UPS to the moon. And in this analogy, Starship is the container ship crossing the ocean, and we are the local distribution solution.
A robotic arm on the rover can help place the payload on the surface. The mass of the rover and all the cargo will be more than two metric tons. The FLEX rover is a bit larger than NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars and much faster, with a top speed of 15 miles per hour.
Matthews said Astrolab already has several agreements signed for the payloads.
This seems to be part of Starship’s expanding potential market. SpaceX plans to use it to launch its second generation of Starlink internet communications satellites. Two flights that are due to pass in front of the moon (but not land) have already been chartered by wealthy space tourists. Mr. Musk’s long-term dream is for a fleet of spacecraft to carry colonists to Mars.
If these schedules hold, the commercial cargo mission with the Astrolab rover could take place next year.
Astrolab hopes a later FLEX rover can win future business with NASA, which is looking to commercial companies to provide lunar terrain vehicles for astronauts — essentially a 21st century version of the Apollo moon buggy. Much larger companies like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are also expected to compete for the contract.
Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut who advises Astrolab, participated in field testing of a passenger prototype of the FLEX rover near Death Valley, California. “So it’s not only a really cool concept, but it’s already a very tested vehicle,” he said.
Farther into the future, the company has even grander visions. “Ultimately, our goal is to have a fleet of rovers on both the Moon and Mars,” Matthews said. “And I really think I see these vehicles as the ultimate enablers of the extraterrestrial economy.”
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