A prototype for one of two possible lunar rovers to take part in the Australian Space Agency’s (ASA) $50 million Moon to Mars Trailblazer program will be unveiled today at the ICC Sydney, with developer ELO2 hoping to engage the Australian public in the process with comments, feedback and ideas.
The program follows an agreement struck in 2021 between the ASA and the USA's National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) for an Australian-made, semi-autonomous rover to be part of a future mission to the Moon.
If selected for the NASA Artemis mission later this decade, the rover would be tasked with transporting lunar regolith (Moon soil) to a NASA-run facility for the extraction of oxygen.
Elo2, a consortium EPE Trusted to Protect and Lunar Outpost Oceania with 14 partners, is focusing on testing chassis and suspension subsystems with the prototype, featuring an early design of a collection device and special wheels that will enable the rover to cross the Moon’s challenging terrain.
The consortium is one of two chosen by the agency to develop early-stage design concepts for the lunar rover, and also includes BHP (ASX: BHP), Northrop Grumman Australia, RMIT University’s Space Industry Hub, the University of Melbourne’s Space Laboratory.
The University of Adelaide, Inovor Technologies, The Australian National University, Element Robotics, Colorado School of Mines and Saber Astronautics will provide specialist contributions, while other Australian industry collaborators include Titomic, One Giant Leap Australia, Vipac and CD3D.
This prototype and the following iterations are a practice in de-risking critical technologies, validating requirements, and ensuring their seamless integration – crucial for the success of Australia’s national flagship mission.
Beyond transporting regolith, the rover would autonomously navigate the lunar environment, locate and collect regolith, and is an essential element to enable NASA’s in-situ resource utilisation facility to operate.
There, oxygen will be extracted from the regolith, which can be used for Artemis astronauts to breathe and for spacecraft fuel – essential elements for a sustained human presence on the Moon.
"Our consortium's unveiling of the lunar rover prototype is a testament to Australia's commitment to space exploration," says Joseph Kenrick, ELO2 technical director with Lunar Outpost Oceania.
"Through the Trailblazer program, ELO2 is spearheading efforts to de-risk critical technologies while striving to deliver a successful and impactful mission for Australia.
"This unveiling marks the beginning of an exciting journey and invites every Australian to be part of our nation's cosmic endeavours."
As part of the consortium's aims to make space more accessible by actively involving citizens in space exploration, part of the design process is involving the Australian public through participation in a range of initiatives, such as the Big Dipper and Little Dipper Challenges which invite people of all ages to present ideas for one element of the rover – the regolith collection device or scoop, for the chance to win prizes and badges.
"ELO2 is designing and developing world-leading technology, capitalising on Australia’s strengths, and leveraging Trailblazer funding to develop dual-use critical technologies able to support technology development for AUKUS Pillar II," says Ben Sorensen, director of innovation and commercialisation at EPE.
"This initial prototype is an early step in this advanced design process, which involves continuous enhancement of the rover's capabilities throughout Stage One of the Trailblazer program.
"As the mission progresses, the consortium aims to engage the public, offering insights into the advancements, challenges and discoveries on the path toward Australia's lunar exploration milestone."
The Trailblazer program is the flagship element of the Moon to Mars initiative, which involves a $150 million investment over five years to drive the growth of Australia’s space sector.
Other Australian companies participating in the Moon to Mars initiative include Advanced Navigation which has been awarded $5.2 million to accelerate development and production of its breakthrough Light Detection, Altimetry and Velocimetry (LiDAV) technology, and Fleet Space Technologies which was awarded a $4 million contract to develop its geophysical device for recording natural seismic waves in the Moon’s subsurface in order to provide insights about its mineral profile and water ice deposits.
Another Australian space technology company, HEO, also recently set up its US office in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Australia's largest space employer and manufacturer of sovereign-made launch vehicles and satellite platforms, Gold Coast-based Gilmour Space, is preparing the ground at the Bowen Orbital Spaceport in North Queensland to launch its 25m tall Eris rocket. The company, which increased its staff count from 160 to 200 in FY23, plans to deliver satellites into Low Earth Orbits (LEO).
These are just a few standouts from Australia's burgeoning space-tech industry, which has also witnessed recent advancements from companies such as Earth observation data software startup Arlula and space services company Skykraft.
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