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Astronauts look on at lunar mobility vehicles, or rovers, in concept art from Lockheed Martin and General Motors. (Provided by Lockheed Martin and General Motors)

Lockheed Martin and General Motors are partnering to create a lunar terrain vehicle that, if selected by NASA, could be used in its Artemis program that will return humans to the moon. 

Lockheed Martin, with its space division headquarters in Denver, said it will lead the team with expertise in deep-space crafts while GM will bring its knowledge of propulsion systems and battery-electric technologies. It’s the first time the two have partnered in space exploration, and officials from both companies on Wednesday said the work would advance extraterrestrial transportation technologies and unlock lunar research opportunities. 

“The alliance makes sense now because of the incredible opportunity that we have to combine the robust expertise of both of our companies to accomplish the mobility goals of the Artemis mission,” said Alan Wexler, vice president of innovation and growth at GM.

The new rovers are being designed to travel much farther than the Apollo rovers, which ventured less than 5 miles from initial landing sites on the moon. 

Lunar mobility is really huge. Think about it,” said Kirk Shireman, vice president of lunar exploration campaigns at Lockheed. “In order to safely land the first woman, next man on the surface of the moon, you need a relatively flat place and no boulders.”

However, boulders are where researchers get samples of lunar rocks and ice. Shireman said scientists would also want to explore similarly hard-to-reach ice embedded in craters. 

The rover could fill in the gap, able to go from a landing site or waystation to distant locations like the South Pole–Aitken basin, the oldest and biggest impact crater on the moon. Research there could provide a better understanding for scientists of how the Earth and some planets in the solar system were formed. Beyond facilitating research, a new rover would benefit space travelers for logistical reasons, like cargo missions.

Shireman added that certain research simply functions better on the moon. Its unique view of Earth would provide a better vantage point for research into phenomena like solar winds. The moon can also provide an environment shielded from electromagnetic radiation from the Earth to perform radio astronomy, detecting celestial objects with radio waves.

GM and Lockheed’s partnership is new, but their experience working in space is not

Before the Artemis program got its name, NASA worked with Lockheed to develop Orion, a spacecraft designed to fly human passengers. Technologies used in Orion will be carried throughout human landing systems, habitats and mobility platforms planned for the moon.

GM has a history of working on space programs, too.

“We’ve manufactured, tested, integrated inertial guidance and navigation systems for the entire Apollo program,” Wexler said, “leading Apollo 11 — the first manned landing in 1969.”

GM engineers helped create the first electric powered rover, meant for a lunar environment whose lack of an atmosphere makes it inhospitable to internal combustion engines. The vehicle had to function at temperatures “nearly twice as hot as the Sahara and twice as cold as the Arctic.”

The company also broke into robotics, developing Robonaut 2, which traveled to the International Space Station as the first humanoid robot in space. Technology from the project has been adopted in health care and manufacturing industries on Earth. 

GM will bring its experience to develop an autonomous driving system for the rover. It’s investing more than $27 billion through 2025 in electric and autonomous vehicle technologies.

The project could add jobs to Colorado’s robust aerospace industry. The Colorado Space Coalition reported roughly 198,220 Coloradans working in space-related jobs in 2020. And the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade values the state’s aerospace economy at $15.4 billion, making it second to California.

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