December 4, 2023
Automotive Space

Toyota provides an update on its Lunar Cruiser programme

Japanese lunar rover is central to NASA’s Artemis programme

Toyota Motor Corporation has announced the latest details of its Lunar Cruiser project that the giant global automaker is researching and developing.

The Toyota Lunar Cruiser is a crewed pressurised rover designed to provide mobility for astronauts on the lunar surface, which Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) hopes to launch in 2029.

Lunar Cruiser is Toyota’s nickname for the vehicle, officially called a crewed ‘pressurised rover’.

It features a pressurised cabin, an enclosed space where the air pressure is controlled to create an environment similar to Earth’s.

No extravehicular suits

Unlike previous lunar rovers, this means that astronauts onboard need not wear extravehicular suits, even in an unforgiving environment with one-sixth of Earth’s gravity and temperatures ranging from 120°C during the day to -170°C at night.

In 2019, Toyota announced it would undertake joint research with JAXA – Japan’s de facto national space agency to build a crewed pressurised lunar rover.

Ken Yamashita, Project Head, Advanced R&D and Engineering Company, Lunar Exploration Mobility Works Project, Toyota Motor Corporation. Image: Toyota

The joint research with JAXA was completed in 2022, and Toyota is currently in the preliminary development phase before beginning work on the primary vehicle in 2024.

Ken Yamashita, Project Head, Advanced R&D and Engineering Company, Lunar Exploration Mobility Works Project, Toyota Motor Corporation, addressed a news conference about the Lunar Cruiser.

He said: “As the next phase after the joint research, we were commissioned by JAXA in the fall of 2022 to begin a conceptual study.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ role

“Also, in late 2022, we confirmed that we would be working together with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to provide individual components and system-level development. We decided this would be a good opportunity to present the team structure behind the Lunar Cruiser development.”

This explains why Yamashita was joined at the news briefing by Atsushi Nakajima, Project Manager, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Space Systems Division, and Fumiya Tsutsui, Director for Space Exploration, JAXA Space Exploration Center, JAXA.

Tsutsui summed up the rover’s features: “The crewed pressurised rover offers mobility and habitability, enabling astronauts to move around and explore the Moon’s surface for prolonged periods beyond the confines of the landing site. In a sense, it is a spaceship that drives on the Moon.

Fumiya Tsutsui, Director for Space Exploration, JAXA Space Exploration Center, JAXA. Image: Toyota

“The pressurised rover’s body is 6 metres long, 5.2 metres wide, and 3.8 metres high, roughly the size of two microbuses. With a 7 square-metre cabin, the rover is being developed to provide a living space for astronauts as they explore the Moon’s surface,” Tsutsui said.

Nakajima of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries added: “To date, we have been involved in the International Space Station programme, including developing the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo, where astronauts work while in orbit, and the Kounotori cargo transporter for delivering supplies to the space station.

Allied space projects

“Currently, we are also working on space exploration-related projects, including a new cargo transporter, equipment for the I-HAB habitation module of the Gateway crewed lunar orbit station, and the LUPEX rover that will search for water resources on the Moon’s surface.

“We will utilise our existing technologies in spacecraft integration, space environment resistance, and human space stays to help develop the crewed pressurised rover’s systems.

“In addition, we expect that data acquired from the Moon’s surface by the LUPEX rover, which is being developed for launch in the mid-2020s, will contribute to the pressurised rover’s development,” Nakajima stated.

Toyota will support the LUPEX rover project through automated driving and other technologies cultivated for earth-bound vehicles.

The planned LUPEX (Lunar Polar Exploration Mission) joint lunar mission is a collaboration between the Indian Space Research Organisation and JAXA. The mission aims to send an uncrewed lunar lander and rover to explore the south pole region of the Moon no earlier than 2026.

Atsushi Nakajima, Project Manager, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Space Systems Division. Image: Toyota

All the R&D behind the pressurised lunar rover is geared towards participation in the NASA-led Artemis programme for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

2029 target

Tsutsui explained that Japan is collaborating with NASA by overseeing the rover’s development, with the target launch date currently set for 2029.

The pressurised rover will allow two astronauts to move around and explore the Moon for 30 days. It can also carry out various uncrewed activities with no one on board.

Space exploration projects are founded on international cooperation. Yet, at the same time, there is also an element of competition between countries, with national prestige on the line.

As such, the pressurised rover R&D is being undertaken as a ‘Team Japan’ endeavour, backed by numerous Japanese companies with advanced technologies.

Despite this competitive aspect, Tsutsui said that Team Japan’s role overseeing the crewed pressurised rover emerged naturally within the Artemis project.

According to Tsutsui: “As the Artemis project kicked off and we exchanged ideas with NASA about the aspects we would handle, the dialogue naturally moved in the direction of us taking on the pressurised rover.

“I think this partially came down to NASA’s high expectations based on Toyota’s track record and technical capabilities.

“The auto industry is one of Japan’s main strong points, and through Kibo, we have also built up space stay technology. I see this as the result of our strengths matching well with NASA’s needs,” Tsutsui concluded.

The rover will be central to NASA’s Artemis programme’s lunar exploration activities.

Featured image: A CGI of the Toyota Lunar Cruiser on the Moon’s surface: Image: Toyota

Arnold Pinto

Arnold Pinto

Arnold Pinto is an award-winning digital-first journalist with wide-ranging Middle East and Asia experience in the tech, space, aerospace, aviation, defence, luxury watchmaking, business, fashion, and automotive verticals. He is passionate about conserving endangered native wildlife globally and protecting the world’s oceans from plastic pollution, overfishing, and climate change. Arnold enjoys 4x4 off-roading and camping.
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