Science and Exploration

Venturi Astrolab’s Multipurpose Rover Buys Moon Ticket on Starship

By James Careless
May 22, 2023
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Venturi Astrolab’s Multipurpose Rover Buys Moon Ticket on Starship
The Venturi Astrolab FLEX rover during a test in the California desert.
Image credit: Venturi Astrolab.

Venturi Astrolab, maker of the Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover, has signed a deal with SpaceX for a ticket to the Moon. This mission, which will use the Starship launch and landing system for transport, could take off as soon as mid-2026.

As its name suggests, the FLEX rover is truly flexible. Powered by onboard lithium-ion batteries that are charged by the rover’s side-mounted solar panels, the autonomously-driven FLEX is about the size of a small pickup truck — but far more versatile. This is because the FLEX’s frame has been designed to lift, carry, and deploy large container-sized boxes of equipment on the lunar (or perhaps someday the martian) surface. FLEX can assemble those containers wherever needed, be they batteries, deployable solar panels, machinery, or anything else that fits into the box. It can then use its robotic arm to extract items from the container and connect them using electrical or data cables.

FLEX’s design is a fundamental departure from how extraterrestrial rovers have been designed to date, Jaret Matthews, founder and CEO of Venturi Astrolab, told SpaceRef. “If you think about rovers like Perseverance or Curiosity, they are landed with the instruments that they’re going to have for their whole mission lifetime,” he explained.

“What’s different about FLEX is the fact that it has a number of modular payload interfaces that can support a wide variety of cargo and missions,” Matthews continued. “This is the kind of multi-mode, modular payload transport that will help establish a permanent lunar outpost on the Moon at a lower cost and in less time than previously envisioned.”

FLEX can also serve as an unpressurized astronaut transport vehicle, meaning it will be able to shuttle crewmembers just as well as cargo, thanks to an attachable transport platform that can carry two standing astronauts. As illustrated by this Astrolab video, space-suited astronauts can use FLEX to take themselves, tools, and samples or equipment wherever they need to go on an extraterrestrial surface. And yes, FLEX rovers can be used singly or in teams.

Whether it happens in mid-2026 or later, Starship’s delivery of FLEX onto the Moon will give Venturi Astrolab the chance to prove its capabilities. To date, the company has been testing FLEX in the California desert in both crewed and uncrewed configurations, approximating the lunar surface as best it could.

“For the first lunar mission, FLEX would be unloaded from the Starship garage and descend to the surface in the Starship elevator,” said Matthews. “Once there, the rover can mobilize the payload that it brings down with it, plus any additional payloads brought to the Moon by Starship.”

The FLEX rover by Venturi Astrolab with equipped robot arm. Image credit: Venturi Astrolab.

Astrolab did take one gamble with the design of FLEX: The vehicle’s solar panels are mounted on its side walls, optimized to capture sunlight during deployments near the Moon’s south pole.

“We think that’s where the industrial scale activity is going to be,” due to the presence of shaded water ice in that region, Matthews told SpaceRef. “At the pole, the Sun’s kind of always on the horizon, so that’s why the arrays are mounted to the side of the platform.”

In addition to working on the FLEX rover, Venturi Astrolab is working with NASA Glenn and NASA Johnson (using NASA funding) to develop durable, flexible long-life tires for use on the Moon.

“The Apollo lunar rover from the 1960s had flexible tires, but they were only designed to last about three days on the lunar surface because that was the duration of those missions,” said Matthews. “In contrast, we’re trying to make a rover with a multi-year lifetime, capable of driving thousands of kilometers over that lifetime. So making a resilient yet still flexible tire is really challenging.”

Astrolab and NASA are currently developing these tires for testing in lunar analog environments, including NASA’s “so-called Dirty Thermal Vacuum Chamber at Johnson Space Center,” Matthews told SpaceRef. “It has a simulated lunar soil bed inside of it, so we can test how the tire interacts with soil conditions that are very, very close to what we expect to see on the Moon. We’re going to announce the specifics of this tire design in a month or so.”

Correction (May 23, 2023): This article’s image caption originally referred to a photo of the FLEX rover as a rendering. SpaceRef regrets the error.

James Careless

James Careless is an award-winning satellite communications writer. He has covered the industry since the 1990s.