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Meet The Pressurized Rover

Toyota’s concept for the Pressurized Rover – a vital surface asset that will assist Artemis astronauts on the lunar surface.
Credit: JAXA/Toyota Group

In April of this year, the United States and Japan signed a formal agreement to collaborate on the first of a new kind of spacecraft for the Artemis Program: a pressurized rover. Acting like a camper van for astronauts to live in as they roam across the surface of the Moon, the pressurized rover is a dramatic new capability for the Artemis Program. Yet this spacecraft is more than just an asset for early Moon landings, or a landmark international partnership. It marks the realization of half a century of lunar dreams, and it may permanently influence how we think about exploration architectures for Mars and beyond.

NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson and Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Masahito Moriyama pose with the implementing arrangement signed earlier this year.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The concept of the pressurized rover seeks to overcome the limitations of exploring the Moon in a space suit. Modern suits can only carry limited amounts of supplies like oxygen, limiting how far a moonwalking astronaut can walk before needing to return to their spacecraft. While astronauts can use an unpressurized Lunar Terrain Vehicle to travel further and faster than they could on foot, they are still ultimately bound to a pressurized environment.

A pressurized rover turns this dynamic on its head. By creating a mobile habitat with its own long-duration life support, astronauts can leave their lander far behind, roaming miles across the surface for days or weeks – all from the comfort of a miniature moon base. Equipped with an airlock, the rover can be used as a staging point for suited EVAs, opening vast swaths of the lunar surface to human exploration. The rover can even be accompanied by an unpressurized LTV, turning the pair of vehicles into a powerful range multiplier.

Artist’s depiction of several Artemis surface elements, including a concept for JAXA’s pressurized rover in the background.
Credit: NASA

Unsurprisingly, the Artemis Program is not the first to conceive of pressurized mobility. Engineers in the Apollo Program were drawing up similar plans in the 1960s, including such concepts as MOLEM and MOLAB, to be deployed from a modified Lunar Module “truck.” The Soviet Union’s contemporary DLB concept included a series of mobile elements forming a long lunar train. More recently, NASA’s Constellation Program extensively studied a concept first known as the Lunar Electric Rover, which later developed into the versatile Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV). The legacy of the SEV persists even today; NASA still conducts training exercises using a drivable mockup in the desert, and its image has become an iconic stand-in for future designs.

A collection of pressurized mobility concepts throughout history.
Credit: Beverly Casillas

Now, the torch has been passed to Japan; the task of realizing the dream will fall to its native space agency, JAXA, and its industry partners. Much as the American LTV program samples a broad swath of industry, JAXA’s teammates range from the aerospace giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as well as automobile manufacturers like Toyota. The implementing arrangement signed in April includes provisions for collaboration and data sharing with NASA as well. Two years ago, NASA pulled its SEV mockup out of storage for another desert trial, accompanied by JAXA astronauts and personnel. The excursion allowed JAXA’s team to get familiar with operating a crewed rover, lending them important insight as they learn to develop their own vehicle.

NASA and JAXA team members conduct an excursion in the Arizona landscape, operating alongside NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle.
Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

The pressurized rover is set to be delivered in time to support Artemis VII, currently planned to stage the fifth Moon landing of the program no sooner than 2031. Under the terms of the implementing arrangement, NASA will still be responsible for launch and delivery of the rover to the Moon. It will be the largest dedicated surface asset ever flown: at a notional mass of around 15 tons, the rover would be as heavy as the entire Apollo Lunar Module. Accordingly, the rover requires a new class of lander to get it down safely. NASA recently commissioned its commercial partners for the Human Landing System – SpaceX and Blue Origin – to develop dedicated cargo-carrying variants of their Starship and Blue Moon landers. One of these “Human-class Delivery Landers” (HDL) is expected to carry JAXA’s precious cargo on its first mission, though both landers have a long development path ahead of them.

Concept renderings of the Starship and Blue Moon Human-class Delivery Landers.
Credit: SpaceX and Blue Origin

This spacecraft will mark another milestone in the history of lunar exploration, and one with major implications for the future: it will be the first dedicated surface habitat ever landed on another world. Science fiction has imagined bases on the Moon and Mars for generations, and the pressurized rover will be our first step in this direction – but it’s a far cry from the stationary emplacements so often depicted. Some of the concepts that came closest to fruition featured an idea known as “pervasive mobility”: that everything we do on the lunar surface will be built around the ability to get up and move somewhere else. Papers from NASA’s defunct Constellation Architecture Team envision a Moon base made up of smaller rovers, which dock together when parked and split up to rove as a caravan. Though the Constellation program was canceled, the idea – and many of its proponents – remain.

Artist’s depiction of a mobile Moon base studied by the Constellation Architecture Team.
Credit: NASA/Constellation Architecture Team

In fact, pervasive mobility is well-suited to the lunar South Pole, the region of the Moon targeted by the Artemis Program. This is a land of contrasts: towering mountain ridges bask in nearly constant sunlight, making them ideal vantage points for solar power and communications; just a few kilometers away, deep craters plunge far into permanent, frigid darkness, with tantalizing science and resources locked in their eternal shadow. While there are many targets for exploration, they are scattered across this rough terrain, leaving limited real estate available for permanent fixtures. With multiple countries and their partners hoping to access the South Pole in the coming years, the ability to move assets as needed will likely be a crucial tool to avoid conflicts and respond to a crowded environment. Mobility could prove to be the most valuable feature of a Moon base; NASA’s notion of an Artemis Base Camp may ultimately resemble a caravan more than an outpost.

Looking even further ahead, science objectives are one of the top priorities of NASA’s Moon to Mars Architecture. Any region on Mars could yield valuable scientific knowledge, but only if astronauts are able to make the most of the land around them, especially when surface time may be limited. Since communications can take 20 minutes or more to travel between Earth and Mars, crews will need to make independent decisions and choose their own priorities once on site. Coupled with the planet’s dynamic weather, the freedom to move will be extremely important for future Mars explorers, making the pressurized rover a crucial step on the road to the Red Planet.

Artist’s depiction of an early Mars surface mission, including a pressurized rover as the crew’s primary habitat.
Credit: NASA

The long-awaited dream of a mobile lunar habitat is finally beginning to take shape, and it promises immense possibilities for explorers on other worlds. For now, however, the new spacecraft merely embodies the value of international partnerships and architecture-oriented planning as we find our first permanent foothold on the Moon.

Edited by Nik Alexander

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