The Most Extreme Artemis Moon Rover Has Deformable Wheels and a Size to Impress

Venturi Astrolab Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) Moon rover 8 photos
Photo: Venturi Astrolab
Venturi Astrolab deformable wheelVenturi Astrolab Flexible Logistics and ExplorationVenturi Astrolab Flexible Logistics and ExplorationVenturi Astrolab Flexible Logistics and ExplorationVenturi Astrolab Venturi Astrolab deformable wheelVenturi Astrolab Venturi Astrolab deformable wheelVenturi Astrolab Flexible Logistics and Exploration
This was a big week for the space exploration industry, as NASA finally announced the finalist companies that will compete to build the crew-rated Moon rover for the later Artemis missions. We discussed two of the entries in our previous coverage, but now it’s time for what I personally consider to be the most impressive of them all: the Venturi Astrolab proposition.
Just like it happened with the Apollo program, Artemis too will need a means of transportation on the surface of the Moon. After all, this is the only way to ensure that proper science is conducted by the people going up there, because a rover would allow them to cover greater distances and reach faraway points of interest.

NASA plans to deploy the rover, generally called Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV), starting with the fifth Artemis mission, which at the time of writing is scheduled for departure no sooner than 2029. But because the thing is such a complicated project to complete, work on it has to start right away.

On Thursday, April 4, NASA said that the three companies involved in this critical stage are Lunar Outpost, Intuitive Machines, and Venturi Astrolab. Because of the complexities of the task, none of these companies are alone in this.

Lunar Outpost, for instance, it is working with Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Goodyear, and MDA Space. Intuitive Machines, the company that already put a lander on the surface of the Moon earlier this year, is doing the same with Boeing, Northrop Grumman, AVL, and Michelin.

As you can see, both these crews have at least a couple of veteran companies on their side. Not Venturi Astrolab, which is only betting on support from companies almost as young as it is, namely Axiom Space and Odyssey Space Research.

Venturi Astrolab Flexible Logistics and Exploration
Photo: Venturi Astrolab
The Venturi name has been around for about four decades now, having been born in Europe, and most of the time it did business in the automotive industry. The company became known in some limited circles as the makers of the MVS Venturi, the Atlantique, or the LM series of limited-production race cars.

Its American offshoot is called Venturi Astrolab, and it has been around for about half the time. This crew is responsible for some truly insane vehicles, many of them concepts, and known to the world as the Fetish, Eclectic, or America.

But the rover these guys plan for the Moon tops them all, not only because it is meant to travel on the surface of other worlds but also because it should be a giant among all rovers ever made. In fact, says the company behind it, we’re looking at the largest rover to ever travel to the Moon (we're not given any specifics, though). It will also be the heaviest, as at over two tons of total mass, it weighs three times more than the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) of the Apollo program.

The machine Venturi is working on is called Flexible Logistics and Exploration. That’s FLEX for short, and it’s a concept that was first presented as a full-scale working prototype in March 2022 – and that makes it the only Moon rover selected by NASA for further development to exist in physical form at the time of writing.

Just like the other two, the Venturi vehicle has to meet some strict design criteria as requested by NASA. First and foremost, it has to be able to support extreme temperatures that range from 280 to minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (138 to minus 173 degrees Celsius). A hard thing to accomplish, especially when it comes to the wheels and electric batteries that will power the rover.

Venturi Astrolab Venturi Astrolab deformable wheel
Photo: Venturi Astrolab
Then, it has to be able to carry two fully-suited astronauts and additional cargo up to a minimum weight of 500 kg (1,100 pounds). Enough room for cargo to be transported must be included in the design, and it must have a robotic arm. On top of it all, the LTV has to be both autonomous and allow for remote operation.

The FLEX, naturally, meets all those targets but adds a few extras of its own, because NASA is allowing each company to follow its own path and use whatever tech it has for the development of the LTV. So Venturi is doing just that.

The company will be using for the FLEX in-house developed batteries, and a set of wheels of the hyper-deformable variety. The design for them was presented last year at the Paris Air Show as a world first.

Because the rover is designed to travel at speeds of 12 mph (20 kph) over the Moon’s very uneven terrain, normal wheels would not have worked. So Venturi’s ones are deformable thanks to the fitting of 192 cables that act as spokes and springs installed on the outer rim.

Unlike the competing designs, the FLEX has already undergone thousands of hours of laboratory and field testing, which in my book kind of gives it an upper edge.

NASA gave the three companies taking part in the program a year to come up with a relatively complete design. It will then select a winner, and it will have the company that makes it test it on the Moon before handing the controls over to the astronauts of the Artemis V mission.

The space agency plans to spend some $4.6 billion on Moon rovers for the duration of the program. Venturi Astrolab says its cut is worth almost half of that, $1.9 billion.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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