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Toyota shoots for the moon with lunar rover plans

Automaker's move a sign of private sector's growing appetite for space business

Toyota's lunar rover will be able to carry two astronauts for extended missions, as well as drive autonomously over thousands of kilometers of hostile terrain. (Courtesy of Toyota)

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor is taking its automotive know-how to the moon. Japan's No. 1 automaker announced on Tuesday that it will jointly develop a fuel cell-powered lunar rover with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), to be used on manned missions as early as 2029.

The planned rover, which was unveiled at an event in Toyko, will be about the size of a microbus, making it large enough to house two astronauts for several weeks at a time. 

JAXA is planning manned missions to explore five different locations near the moon's southern pole between 2029 and 2034. For each mission, the astronauts will be based in the rover for 42 days, during which time they will be able to leave the vehicle to explore their surroundings. Once they depart, the vehicle will drive thousands of kilometers to the next location to wait for the next mission. 

"This is going to be a very tough challenge for Toyota," said Shigeki Terashi, Toyota chief technology officer. "There are no paved roads on the moon."

In addition to navigating rough terrain, the rover will have to be able to drive itself, because the distance is too great for it to be operated from earth in real time. The vehicle also has to withstand the moon's harsh environment, including high radiation and temperatures that vary by 300 C between the day and the night.

Toyota is already testing its SUVs on wild terrain on five continents. "The moon will be our sixth continent to conquer," Terashi said.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata, left, and Toyota Executive Vice President Shigeki Terashi unveil the company's planned lunar rover in Tokyo on March 12. (Photo by Keiichiro Sato)

Toyota has invested heavily in fuel cell vehicles, which carry oxygen and hydrogen to generate electricity on board. While the technology has yet to achieve mass adoption in Japan, due to a lack of refueling infrastructure, Terashi hopes that "a hydrogen-based society will be realized on the moon earlier than on the earth."  

Governments and private space-related companies around the world are already rushing to commercialize space exploration. Toyota's entry into this race is a sign that even down-to-earth companies like automakers now see commercial potential in the final frontier.

The last manned mission to Earth's nearest neighbor was followed by 50 years of neglect as governments shifted their priorities from costly missions. But while space exploration was long seen as too risky an undertaking for private companies, "it is becoming more viable through public and private partnerships," says Masayasu Ishida, a consultant at A.T. Kearney.

Ishida says partnerships with companies like Toyota make sense because they have technology that JAXA and traditional rocket launch companies do not have, such as robotics and autonomous driving.  

Toyota's announcement comes amid a flurry of lunar activity, both public and private. In January, China achieved the first-ever landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, while in February, an Israeli group became the first privately funded organization to launch a moon lander. India is expected to launch its own lunar rover as early as next month.

Helping to fuel this new space race is the entry of private companies such as SpaceX of the U.S., which has drastically reduced the cost of rocket launches. SpaceX and others see vast commercial possibilities for space, including space tourism and natural resource development. Earlier this month, SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

On the government side, the U.S. is proposing to build a new, smaller space station to put into lunar orbit as a "gateway" for deep space exploration, including manned missions to the moon and Mars. In late February, Canada became the first country to join the NASA-led Gateway project. Japan, Russia and Europe are reviewing the idea. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on an unmanned test flight to the International Space Station on March 2.   © Reuters

Japan has shown interest in the project as a less costly way to explore the space. Even for the U.S., spending 4-5% of federal funding on a space project, as it did during the Apollo program in 1960-1972, is no longer politically feasible. Russia, which was the most advanced space power during the Soviet period, has lost much government funding and depends on private sector money and cooperation with the West to sustain its space industry.

China is one of the few exceptions. With its economy still growing more than 6% and one-party rule providing policy continuity, the country is capable of devoting ample resources to space development. Its efforts have paid off. China now launches more rockets than the U.S. or Russia, has conducted manned spacewalks, has operated its own space station, and is now eyeing a manned mission to the moon and Mars.

China's rapid advances have added to the sense of urgency in Japan, which sees business potential in going to the moon and is keen to avoid falling behind.

Some Japanese companies,such as lunar exploration startup ispace, envisage a future in which thousands of people live on the Moon and tens of thousands making trips to it by around 2040. The vision also envisages creating colonies on the Moon's surface and mining resources for exploration further afield.

The vision is shared by JAXA scientists. They believe that the Moon is likely to have ice deposits in its polar regions and that this could be electrolyzed into oxygen and hydrogen to provide fuel for space missions from the moon. Lunar exploration is now increasingly looking like a gold rush of the 19th century.

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