Tiny but Mighty Lunar Rover Moves One Step Closer to Launch

A group of men wearing suits stands in a large, white room while listening to a man in a black jacket talk
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson views the Lunar Vertex rover at Johns Hopkins APL during a visit on June 9, 2023. Lunar Vertex Principal Investigator David Blewett (center) discusses the mission with (from left) APL Payload Systems Engineer Will Ames, APL Space Exploration Sector Head Bobby Braun, Nelson, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and APL Civil Space Mission Area Executive Jason Kalirai. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Lunar Outpost/Craig Weiman)

In 2024, a small rover is set to roam the Moon, collecting critical data to help scientists better understand characteristics of the lunar surface. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, recently received the rover from commercial partner Lunar Outpost. The rover is a key element of NASA’s Lunar Vertex payload suite.

Lunar Vertex will explore one of the Moon’s swirls, intriguing patterns of bright and dark soil that snake across the surface and coincide with swaths of magnetized rock. Scientists believe these areas can help them answer many questions about conditions on the Moon and other airless worlds throughout the solar system.

The rover, a version of Lunar Outpost's Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP) product, will carry a set of science instruments to explore the origins and magnetism of the most famous of the Moon’s swirls, Reiner Gamma. Although it is small and lightweight, the rover carries significant scientific capabilities and can drive long distances — a feature critical for its traverse across the Reiner Gamma swirl.

“Having the mobility provided by the rover is key to accomplishing the science goals of the Lunar Vertex investigation,” said David Blewett, the mission’s principal investigator at APL.

Three men wearing suits and a women in a dress stand in front of a glass window with the small Lunar Vertex rover behind them
The Lunar Vertex rover (visible through the window) in a clean room at APL. From left to right: Will Ames (the Lunar Vertex payload systems engineer at APL), Ann Cox (the Lunar Vertex program manager at APL), AJ Gemer (the chief technology officer at commercial partner Lunar Outpost) and David Blewett (the Lunar Vertex principal investigator at APL). (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Over the next several months, the APL engineering team will collaborate closely with Lunar Outpost to integrate the scientific instruments, a vector magnetometer created by APL and a multispectral microscope from Canadensys Aerospace onto the vehicle. Then the rover will undergo environmental testing at APL to ensure it can survive the harsh conditions of launch and outer space. In addition to the two instruments on the rover, Lunar Vertex includes three instruments that will be mounted on the lunar lander: a set of cameras from Redwire, a magnetometer from APL and an ion-electron spectrometer from the Southwest Research Institute.

“APL is excited to partner with a new commercial company to maximize agility in the development of highly valuable space missions,” said Jason Kalirai, the Civil Space mission area executive at APL. “Our collaboration with industry on Lunar Vertex enhances the nation’s rapid return to the Moon and enables new scientific breakthroughs regarding the lunar surface.”

Lunar Outpost in Golden, Colorado, developed the rover on a condensed timeline of less than two years from contract award to delivery.

“This project is an amazing opportunity for Lunar Outpost to combine our cutting-edge rover with APL’s world-class science expertise,” said Justin Cyrus, Lunar Outpost chief executive officer. “These agile and innovative NASA missions energize collaboration, and we are proud to deliver critical contributions to lunar science that inform humanity’s understanding of our solar system and build a foundation for a sustainable presence in space.”

“We are incredibly excited to be delivering our flight model MAPP lunar rover to APL, and supporting NASA lunar science and the Lunar Vertex mission,” added AJ Gemer, chief technology officer at Lunar Outpost. “This new era of rapidly deployable, cost-effective robotic lunar surface missions represents a landmark to both space science and exploration, and the development of the cislunar commercial space industry.”

A 3D-generated illustration of the Lunar Vertex rover
Photograph of the Lunar Vertex rover flight model taken before shipment to APL. The cylinder on top is a mass model for the APL Vector Magnetometer - Rover (VMR). The VMR flight instrument was installed during rover integration activities at APL. (Credit: Lunar Outpost)

The Lunar Vertex investigation was competitively awarded under the Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) call for proposals at NASA. PRISM solicits science investigations that will reach the Moon on commercial landers selected through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. NASA initiated CLPS in 2018 to spur rapid acquisition of lunar delivery services from American companies for payloads that advance capabilities for science, exploration or commercial development of the Moon.

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