Lunar formula race begins between US and Japanese teams

The space agencies of Washington and Tokyo share the development of the vehicles that will roam the Moon in the 1930s 
En su viaje de abril a Estados Unidos, el primer ministro Fumio Kishida ha consolidado la presencia de su industria de automóviles en la Luna. En imagen, con la vicepresidenta Kamala Harris y el secretario de Estado, Antony Blinken - PHOTO/US Congress
On his April trip to the United States, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has cemented the presence of its automobile industry on the Moon. He is pictured with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken - PHOTO/US Congress
  1. One for short hauls, one for longer ones
  2. Protected from cosmic and solar radiation

President Joe Biden and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have endorsed that Tokyo and Washington will go to the Moon together hand in hand. And they have also agreed that their respective space agencies will realise high-mobility electric vehicles that will roam our natural satellite in the early 2030s.

This is one of the technological quid pro quos that Kishida has extracted from Biden during his recent official visit to the United States, the main purpose of which was to strengthen bilateral relations between Tokyo and Washington in defence and security matters, one of the ways that both leaders believe best serves to put the brakes on China's expansionism in Asia.

The Japanese Prime Minister has also highlighted the high space capabilities of Toyota, the world's leading automobile manufacturer, during his American tour. Kishida made this clear to Bill Nelson, 81, a former senator, former astronaut, personal friend of Joe Biden and head of NASA, the organisation in charge of making the future US lunar rover a reality. 

The NASA project has been dubbed the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) and has just begun its final selection process in April. Three consortia made up of aerospace and automotive companies have been awarded $30 million to submit their proposals within a year. The winner will win a contract worth more than $1.8 billion. 

El presidente de la JAXA, Hiroshi Yamakawa, explica el Lunar Cruiser al jefe de la NASA, Bill Nelson, en presencia del ministro de Ciencia y Tecnología, Masahito Moriyama, y los astronautas Akihiko Hoshide y Kayla Barron - PHOTO/NASA-Bill Ingalls
JAXA president Hiroshi Yamakawa explains the Lunar Cruiser to NASA chief Bill Nelson in the presence of Science and Technology Minister Masahito Moriyama and astronauts Akihiko Hoshide and Kayla Barron - PHOTO/NASA-Bill Ingalls

One for short hauls, one for longer ones

One industry group is led by Intuitive Machines, its initiative is called Moon Racer and involves giants Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Michelin and engine manufacturer AVL. Another is Lunar Outpost, whose Lunar Dawn project includes major players Lockheed Martin, MDA Space, General Motors and Goodyear. The third is Astrolab, a Monaco-based company that is partnering with Odyssey Space Research, Axiom Space and Elon Musk's SpaceX to develop its FLEX vehicle.  

What are NASA's main requirements? The three consortia are competing to develop a rechargeable lunar rover with autonomous navigation and a maximum weight of 800 kilos. It must be able to carry two astronauts, travel 20 kilometres per day, reach 15 kilometres per hour and overcome gradients of 20%. And that it can operate continuously for eight hours, two of them in semi-darkness, and survive for 150 hours in the cold nights of the lunar South Pole.

And when does he say he wants it? According to the current flight schedule of the Artemis programme, NASA needs to have the LTV ready by March 2030, to send it to the Moon on the Artemis V mission, the third mission to land humans on the surface of Selene.  

The Japanese option is very different, innovative and more advanced in its development. Its most fervent promoter is the 53-year-old veteran Toyota executive and now newly appointed executive chairman of the company, Koji Sato. Called the Lunar Cruiser, it is an original, fully weather-protected vehicle designed to carry two astronauts and equipped with artificial intelligence driving.

La NASA quiere un pequeño vehículo para dos astronautas, capaz de recorrer 20 kilómetros diarios, superar desniveles del 20%, alcanzar una velocidad de 15 kilómetros por hora y sobrevivir a las frías noches del Polo Sur lunar - PHOTO/NASA
NASA wants a small vehicle for two astronauts, capable of travelling 20 kilometres a day, overcoming 20 per cent gradients, reaching a speed of 15 kilometres per hour and surviving the cold nights of the lunar South Pole - PHOTO/NASA

Protected from cosmic and solar radiation

Since 2019, several teams of engineers from Toyota and JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency headed by Professor Hiroshi Yamakawa, have been working together on the design and development of the vehicle. A concept study began in autumn 2022 and the vehicle is now in the development phase with contributions from industrial giants Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Bridgestone. 

At the back of the vehicle is its biggest secret: it houses fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate the clean energy needed to drive its six wheels and travel up to "10,000 kilometres in 42 days", summarises JAXA's Director of Space Exploration, Fumiya Tsutsui. The initial electricity is generated by the Lunar Cruiser's deployable solar panel, which also powers on-board equipment and instruments.

The Lunar Cruiser is 6 metres long, 5.2 metres wide and 3.8 metres high, "slightly larger than the size of two minibuses," says Tsutsui. Its cockpit is pressurised to Earth-like conditions so that astronauts can travel comfortably in a large 13-cubic-metre habitable space. This will allow them to explore the surface of the Moon "far beyond the landing site without needing to wear their spacesuits," says Toyota project leader Ken Yamashita. 

It should be noted that temperatures on the Moon range from 120°C during the day to -170°C at night. It is subject to strong cosmic and solar radiation, its surface is covered with a kind of sand called regolith, which slows down movement, and it has one sixth of the gravity of the Earth. 

NASA's commitment is to take the Japanese vehicle to the Moon on the Artemis VII mission, land it on its surface and leave it in the hands of JAXA, one of whose astronauts would be responsible for its operation. At the earliest, the Lunar Cruiser should be on the Moon in March 2032, which is the date set in the schedule included in the US agency's budget request for the federal year 2025.