Space truly is the final frontier. And even though Anson Mount’s Captain Pike gets bigger and bigger hair each new week of Strange New Worlds, real space exploration is about to blow up in a big way. Part of that is due to what Lockheed Martin and General Motors are currently working on, and will have deployed on the moon by 2025. It’s, unoriginally, called the Lunar Mobility Vehicle.
GM isn’t new to space, because it built the lunar rovers that accompanied the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. Lockheed Martin, a prominent defense contractor and builder of everything from the F-35 stealth multirole combat aircraft to Patriot missile batteries, has built more spacecraft than all other players combined. They’re also, for those keeping track, the only company operating on Mars.
The Lunar Mobility Vehicle, or LMV, is the first step in establishing a permanent presence on the moon, and is more than just an exploration tool.
Unlike other commercial space ventures, Lockheed Martin is self-funding the LMV. By not going to NASA for money, they maintain complete program autonomy, giving the company flexibility to serve a multitude of clients.
The ultimate goal? To create the infrastructure on the moon to support other lunar activities. Some of those may include projects to support NASA’s Artemis missions, but could also support other scientific and commercial applications.
Let’s give a practical example. Let’s say you develop a measuring tool to help determine if the moon is, in fact, made of cheese. Once your tool lands on the moon, the LMV can come pick you up and move you to the various spots you want to test for cheese at a high rate of speed.
Does your cheese probing device need more than one lunar day to work? No problem! The LMV can come and pick up your rover, help power it down, and keep it powered and warm to survive the lunar nightfall.
The possibilities are, in fact, endless, but the big point to drive home about what Lockheed Martin is trying to do is to make the business of space less expensive and more reliable for other businesses and entities wanting to do business in space.
To help facilitate that infrastructure rollout, you got to start somewhere. That’s where the LMV comes in, and that’s where General Motors comes in.
The LMV is built on GM’s Ultium platform — similar to what appears in the Hummer EV — and provides a unique opportunity to stress test the platform in ways it hasn’t been tested before. Most lunar technology is disposable, because the harsh cold of the lunar night — and the 500° F temperature swings between day and night — kill electronics.
But not much is really different for the lunar rover than that in the Hummer EV. Ultium battery packs on Earth feature a pouch design, but on the moon they’ll be cylindrical. According to program chief engineer Brent Deep, “cylindrical cells maintain shape in a vacuum.” Right.
General Motors isn’t just providing its engineering expertise in providing human safe vehicles quickly — thought it is — but Lockheed and GM are concentrating on the autonomy that GM is currently working on thanks to its Cruise division.
Even with advanced telecommunications on the moon — we’re told 4k video is no big deal once the hardware is in place — there’s still the pesky laws of physics which limit the speed of light. That means there’s a 3 second delay between a message sent on the moon to receiving it on Earth. Too much ping time to play Call of Duty.
But if you’re operating a rover from Earth, that means at least 6 seconds round trip in receiving data and sending back a command. Want to confirm that command was successful? That’s another 3 seconds.
That’s why rovers on the moon now, and the rovers on Mars, move at such a slow rate. NASA’s Viper rover has a top speed of 0.5 kph. That doesn’t make exploration of different areas quick, and if you have only 14 days to explore before the night kills your rover, you end up having to send multiple rockets up with multiple probes to survey multiple areas.
The LMV will have SAE Level 5 autonomy when it goes to the moon in 2025. It’ll have all the lidar and sensors needed to operate on its own. It’ll have to, actually, since it’s slated to arrive on the moon before the humans do in the Artemis mission.
This means that the LMV will be able to explore on its own. It won’t have to wait for commands from Mission Control to know what to do. The operators can pick a target on a map, and the rover will drive there. It’ll take advantage of GPS satellites in orbit, as well as sensors to watch everything from all angles. It’ll be able to make decisions, based on artificial intelligence, on how to respond to scenarios. In essence, it’s exploring the moon on its own.
The secret to the LMV is that it can do things the other 51 weeks of the year that humans aren’t on the moon. It can explore, doing its own work or moving other probes around, at speeds of up to 20 kph. The hardened nature of the Ultium platform means the hardware can power down and survive the lunar night, and be reusable again and again.
There’s no need to send up multiple rockets. There’s no need to leave rovers dead on the surface. The cost savings alone are fascinating when you think about it.
But how do you develop a rover to drive on the moon, when you can’t build it on the moon? That’s where GM’s expertise comes into play yet again.
GM has a driver-in-loop simulator, or DIL, has been used to help develop vehicles long before the first prototypes are built. The DIL is a simulator built on top of actual components, putting the driver into the proverbial loop.
On a project like Corvette, GM engineers can try new suspension setups, tuning, and more. For a lunar rover, all of the development must occur virtually, because the only time to test on the moon is when the rover goes to the moon.
“Virtual tools are the best tuning option on Earth,” says Deep. Going out to the desert, running prototypes down bumpy hills, or any other Earth-based experiments to test hardware doesn’t simulate the moon the way that the virtual tools that GM has at its disposal.
Using complex computer algorithms, combined with high resolution orbital satellite imagery, engineers can climb into the DIL and literally — well virtually — drive on the moon.
That’s where we come in. GM and Lockheed Martin invited us to GM’s Milford Proving Grounds to climb into the DIL and drive on the moon. Based on the most current design of the rover that GM and Lockheed are working with, we set off to find some craters and see if we could max out the rover.
The simulator cockpit itself doesn’t mimic the rover, unfortunately. It has a steering wheel, seats, and an instrument cluster from the Corvette in the shell of a crossover like the Equinox. It has an accelerator and brake pedal, which the rover won’t have, because space boots don’t provide the dexterity needed to modulate a throttle pedal.
But, nevertheless, we were driving on the moon. While a bit disorientating, the world moves around you like you are bouncing around in 0.6 gravity. You feel moon boulders crashing against the skid plate as you bomb along the regolith-lined surface. If you’ve ever went off roading in Moab, the sensations feel natural. Just the gravity does not.
Being able to pull up to a massive crater — at maximum speed of 20 kph — and being able to peer down inside really felt like we were astronauts exploring the moon. If you grew up watching science fiction, this was a thrill like no other.
Just don’t drive off the side of the map, because like the Earth, the moon is flat!
OK, so that last part isn’t true, but the entire lunar surface isn’t mapped in the system, so you could drive off the edge in the simulator.
One point that Lockheed’s people emphasized after our drive was that the autonomy would make different decisions than we did. We went straight for a boulder field, for example, while the software would’ve likely routed itself around it.
One of the areas that we had questions about was what happens if the rover gets stuck. “It’s something I think about a lot,” Deep tells us. “Obviously the main answer is to just not get stuck,” he says, “but we things like a robotic arm to help.”
The robotic arm, built by MDA, can support a number of mission-specific tasks, but could potentially be involved in vehicle recovery. Other tech is in the works, but those features are something Lockheed and GM are keeping close to their collective chests.
But one other cool thing engineers can do is, if the rover is in a precarious situation, it can download all the data that the rover has into the DIL back in Milford, and work the problem on Earth in the most realistic simulator of what it’s like on the moon. That’s next level problem solving 238,900 miles away.
The GM and Lockheed Martin Lunar Mobility Vehicle is on track to be on the moon in 2025. This will be before humans return on the Artemis mission. That means that the rover could be in position to watch humans return to the moon and broadcast in beautiful 4k video what that looks like.
It’ll complete final assembly and testing at Lockheed’s facilities in Colorado before boldly going where no Ultium platform has gone before.
Space is about to get really, really interesting.