First Mode joins Arizona State’s team to flesh out a plan for a marathon moon rover

Alan Boyle
This artist’s conception provides a rough idea of what the Intrepid moon rover would look like. (ASU / First Mode Graphic)

Seattle-based First Mode is working with Arizona State University and other partners to draw up a concept for a rover that could travel more than 1,100 miles across the moon’s surface over a four-year period.

NASA is funding the concept study, which is due next June.

The rover, dubbed Intrepid, would travel farther than any previous rover in NASA’s history to check out more than 100 sites for signs of lunar water ice.  Intrepid would also map radiation, solar wind and the chemical makeup of lunar soil. The mission’s proposed landing site is in the region of the moon’s Reiner Gamma magnetic anomaly, north of the lunar equator, and the rover would wend its way northward to Aristarchus Crater.

Intrepid would be about the size of an all-terrain vehicle and weigh in at just under half a ton (425 kilograms),. Power would be provided by a plutonium-based multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generator, also known as an MMRTG.

ASU Professor Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, will lead the concept study, which is due next June. In addition to First Mode, ASU’s partners include representatives from Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, Washington University in St. Louis, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the University of New Hampshire at Durham and NASA’s Ames Research Center and Johnson Space Center.

“The ASU team has been working on the Intrepid mission concept for nearly a decade, and it is very gratifying to have the chance to work with NASA to advance idea to the next stage,” Robinson said today in a news release. “This award provides the means to iron out details of the rover design and science strategy, which ultimately could lead to Intrepid being included in a future mission competition.”

Robinson said the study will consider design issues that include the “advantages and disadvantages of a six-wheel rover versus a four-wheel rover, what the best form of communication is, and if the proposed instrument package is appropriate.”

That task is tailor-made for First Mode, a system design and engineering firm that was founded by former employees of the Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources asteroid mining company. Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and chief engineer, said he and his colleagues look forward to partnering with ASU.

“We are excited to deliver First Mode’s expertise in rover systems, surface mobility, and MMRTG integration to this audacious mission concept,” Voorhees said.

This map traces the proposed route for the Intrepid moon rover. (ASU Graphic)

The moon and its resources have attracted increased interest in light of NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to the lunar surface starting in 2024. NASA already has given the go-ahead to send a rover called VIPER to the moon’s south pole in 2022.

Intrepid would be launched later, if it’s launched at all. It’s one of 10 planetary mission concept studies that are being funded through a NASA program known as Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences, or ROSES.

The other studies include proposals for missions targeting the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, the dwarf planet Ceres, the Saturnian moon Enceladus, Neptune and its moon Triton, and Pluto and the solar system’s icy Kuiper Belt.

Neither ASU nor First Mode is saying how much they will receive in NASA funding. However, NASA says that it’s budgeting about $1 million for the 10 studies, and that each study group will receive in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $150,000.

The Intrepid team’s recommendations will be delivered to a design team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for detailed engineering study and decision-making. Once that’s complete, the two teams will report back to NASA with a solid mission architecture and a realistic cost estimate.

“Someday Intrepid may be built and explore the moon — for now we need to work hard to show that Intrepid has a high science return and is doable within a reasonable cost cap,” Robinson said in an ASU news release.

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