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SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a grand vision of flying off to Mars. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda is thinking of somewhere just a bit closer to home: the moon.
Toyota is working up the design for a six-wheeled, hydrogen-powered rover that you might want to think of as a Lunar Land Cruiser. In fact, that’s what the automaker has dubbed it, the Lunar Cruiser. Substantially more sophisticated and capable than the dune buggy-like rovers used during the Apollo mission a half-century ago, the Japanese automaker hopes its design will be picked by NASA for the Artemis moon mission it is planning to launch by 2024.
“We have now found a new ‘road,’ which is the moon. And for this new road, we will be able to make a new vehicle,” Takao Sato, project head of Toyota’s Lunar Exploration Mobility Works and a former interior design engineer who worked on the Prius hybrid, told Automotive News. (To see the Automotive News story, Click Here.) “This is a dream for us.”
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It’s been nearly 50 years since the Apollo mission wrapped up. After the initial landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in Apollo 11, the astronauts assigned to subsequent missions had the opportunity to spread out from their landing site using a primitive, open-air buggy developed, in part, by General Motors.
Going forward, NASA and partners, including the European Space Agency, want something more sophisticated that not only features greater range but also offers more amenities. That starts with an enclosed and pressurized cabin that includes both toilet facilities and sleeping quarters. Those would be essential considering the Artemis missions intend to have astronauts planting boots on the moon for weeks at a time.
Toyota’s Lunar Rover design adds an extra axles, six wheels expected to give it greater mobility on the pockmarked moon’s surface.
Then there’s the powertrain. Rather than going with a battery, with its hefty mass and limited energy storage, Toyota is lifting an idea from its Mirai fuel-cell vehicle. Its lunar design would be powered by hydrogen – though, without an atmosphere to draw oxygen from, both gases would need to be carried onboard.
Eventually, the goal would be to produce both hydrogen and oxygen from the water believed to be available on various parts of the lunar surface, primarily near the poles. Initially, tanks of the fuel – and the oxygen to combine with — would have to be delivered to the lunar surface.
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Whatever the method, NASA wants whatever rover it finally goes with to be able to manage 1,000 kilometers – about 621 miles — per tank, and as much as 10,000 kilometers during a 42-day period.
The Lunar Rover will use individual wheel motors, six of them each generating 40 kilowatts, or about 54 horsepower, apiece. The maximum speed will be between 12 and 15 mph, according to Toyota.
The Toyota design would still make use of the sun, when available, with a retractable solar panel on its roof to provide additional electricity.
There will be three big antenna on the roof, as well, including ones to send data while also allowing NASA to operate the rover remotely – though, even at the speed of light there will be a roughly 1.5 second delay between issuing a command on Earth and it reaching the lunar surface.
How much each Lunar Rover would cost hasn’t been determined, though it will be far more expensive than anything Toyota has built to date. That said, the original Apollo rovers were supposed to cost about $19 million each but, with cost overruns, doubled that to about $38 million each. Adjusted for inflation, that would work out to about $274 million today, adjusted for inflation.
A decade ago, when the Lunar X Prize was announced, it was estimated that it would cost as much as $950,000 per pound to get something to the moon. Toyota expects its Lunar Rover – which would be about the size of two microbuses – will weigh in at 3.5 tons. So, the price of getting such a big machine to the moon will likely dwarf a rover’s price tag.
(Toyota building lunar rover for Japan’s 2030 moon landing.)
Toyota is by no means the only company hoping to land the plum, out-of-this-world contract. Company official say they hope to find out if they’ve won by year-end.