NASA has awarded Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Astrobotic a US$5.6 million contract to build a new suitcase-sized robotic lunar rover that could land on the Moon as soon as 2021. One of 12 proposals selected as part of the agency's Lunar Surface and Instrumentation and Technology Payload (LSITP) program, the 24-lb (11-kg) MoonRanger rover is designed to operate autonomously on week-long missions within 0.6 mi (1 km) of its lander.

NASA's Artemis project to return American astronauts to the Moon and establish a permanent presence there involves a new wave of robotic surface exploration vehicles to scout out landing sites, mineral resources, water ice, and other points of interest.

However, the current state of rover technology involves large, autonomous machines that take months or years to complete their objectives. In the case of lunar rovers, this means making robots that can not only carry out their assigned tasks, but can also survive that deadly 14-day lunar night and its electronics-killing cold.

MoonRanger addresses this problem by simplifying and speeding up the rover, so it can run long-range exploration missions inside the span of a week. Described by development and construction lead William "Red" Whittaker, this "mission in a week" approach could quickly transform lunar exploration.

The MoonRanger has a simpler, cheaper design and is so small it can't carry a radio transceiver powerful enough for direct communications with Earth. This means it has to be largely autonomous, so it can navigate and gather data before returning to its lander to relay the findings and receive new orders.

The current iteration of MoonRanger is designed to create detailed 3D terrain maps with a particular emphasis on polar regions, which have shown evidence of ice or lunar pits that could lead to caves that could be turned into manned outposts.

"This latest NASA award to develop MoonRanger for a mission to the moon is another example of how Astrobotic is the world leader in lunar logistics," says John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, a CMU spinoff. "Our lander and rover capabilities are designed to deliver our customers to the moon and allow them to carry out meaningful, low-cost activities for science, exploration and commerce."