JAXA, the Japanese space agency, says it has agreed “to study the possibility of collaborating on international space exploration” with Japanese carmaker Toyota. Specifically, the two plan to explore the possibility of a manned, pressurized rover capable of driving on other worlds, using fuel cells as a power source.
“Manned, pressurized rovers will be an important element supporting human lunar exploration, which we envision will take place in the 2030s,” says JAXA Vice President Koichi Wakata in a joint press statement. “We aim at launching such a rover into space in 2029.” While the agency’s promotional video is focused on lunar travel, the press release also makes mention of the rover eventually driving on Mars.
While the vehicle is still very much in the idea phase, JAXA and Toyota released some specs for the pressurized lunar rover. It would be nearly 20 feet (6 meters) long, a little over 17 feet (5.2 m) wide, and 12 and a half feet (3.8 m) tall. Described as around “the size of two microbuses,” it would have a living space of 13 cubic meters and could house 2 people comfortably, 4 in an emergency.
The Toyota would be a massive leap in lunar driving technology. For comparison, the last manned vehicle on the moon was NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), the “moon buggy” that transported astronauts on Apollo 15, 16 and 17. For comparison, the LRV was 10.1 feet (3.1 m) long and stood 3.7 feet (1.14 m) tall. It was powered on two 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries.
Toyota, whose Prius is the bestselling hybrid electric vehicle of all time, framed the potential lunar rover as part of its greater global strategy for cars on Earth. Says Toyota Executive Vice President Shigeki Terashi:
“Toyota believes that achieving a sustainable mobility society on Earth will involve the coexistence and widespread use of electrified vehicles, such as hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, battery electric vehicles, and fuel cell electric vehicles. For electrification, fuel cell batteries represent an indispensable technology. Fuel cells, which use clean power-generation methods, emit only water, and, because of their high energy density, they can provide a lot of energy, making them especially ideal for the project being discussed with JAXA.”
The challenge of space travel would be for Toyota, as it is for anyone looking towards the final frontier, is durability. Creating fuel cells that could withstand the harsh environs of the moon or Mars would be a formidable challenge. “Being allowed to be a member of ‘Team Japan’,” Terashi says, “we would like to take up the challenge of space.”