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Audi's mission to the Moon

Konstantin Sheiko
March 15, 2018

A major car corporation has embarked on an exciting and new quest of space exploration. Because terrestrial roads apparently are not challenging enough, Audi has partnered with a group called Part-Time Scientists to launch a lunar rover. The partners previously discussed a 2017 launch, and now it looks like that might actually happen. Part-Time Scientists has booked a rocket from Spaceflight Inc. to deliver the rover, called the Audi Lunar Quattro, to the Moon late 2018.  

Part-Time Scientists is a group of thirty five engineers spread across three continents. Their aim is to win the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize, which goes to the first private team that can get a rover to the Moon, remotely drive it at least 500 meters (164 feet), and send back high-resolution images.

A group of sixteen Audi employees have been collaborating with Part-Time Scientists since the partnership was announced last year. Over the past few months, they have refined the rover design by enlarging both the vehicle and its wheels, which increases stability, according to Audi. The larger contact patch of the bigger wheels should also increase traction. Engineers also managed to shave eight kilograms through “an optimum mix of materials,” as well as 3D printing. 

The Audi Lunar Quattro will use four cameras to navigate on the Moon, and to take 360-degree photos to send back to Earth. Like most Earth-bound Audis, the Lunar Quattro is all-wheel drive, thanks to electric motors in each of its wheels. Audi previously quoted a top speed of 3.6 kph (2.2 mph). Slow and steady wins this race, apparently.

So hopefully Apollo 17's lunar rover, abandoned on the moon in 1972, will soon get its first visitor in forty six years. Two Audi lunar rovers will head to the Apollo landing site to investigate how the old Apollo equipment has fared after nearly half a century in the vacuum of space. The private company creating the rovers hopes their budget mission will eventually make trips to the moon commercially viable. 

Researchers from PT Scientists have announced that the two rovers will send live HD pictures to Earth as they travel to within 200 metres (656 feet) of the Apollo rover, left on the lunar surface in 1972, and inspect it remotely. However, in accordance with Nasa preservation guidelines, the PT Scientists' vehicles cannot land any closer than 2 km away, and it cannot get any closer than 200 meters from the Apollo site. It is hoped the probes will be able to scan the Apollo vehicle and assess its condition, including any possible damage caused by intense radiation, extreme temperatures, and micro-meteorites. 

Audi has said that along with its knowledge of lightweight design, it has expertise about the quattro permanent all-wheel drive system and the electrical e-tron drive system. The manufacturer states the goal is to 'further enhance performance by making additional improvements to the electric motors, power electronics and battery.' The luxury car manufacturer added it will be able to provide experience with lightweight materials, electric mobility and piloted driving, ahead of the rover's launch. The rover is powered by an adjustable solar panel that captures sunlight and directs it to a lithium-ion battery. It feeds four electric wheel hub motors.

The rovers will travel to the moon on board one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets – a place on which cost $130 million. In comparison, the average cost for Nasa to launch a space shuttle is $450 million. According to Robert Boehme, CEO of PT Scientists, “At the moment no company considers doing anything in deep space. Earthbound space exploration has been lucrative since the 1990s. We as mankind need to go out further”. PT Scientists believe that making space exploration cheaper is the way forward.  

Mr Boehme said, “Why the hell is it so complicated and expensive? What could we do differently than all those skilled engineers at Nasa? They are so much better, have fancy white coats, and they are awesome. The problem is they reinvent the wheel every time. Commercial organisations then look at what they've done and realise it is too expensive.” 

But PT Scientists believe that simpler communications equipment – not dissimilar from technology used in phones – could be used on missions, at a fraction of the cost. The firm has also recycled equipment used to supply the International Space Station to slash costs. PT Scientists also have aspirations beyond the Moon, in particular Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars.