Moon rally circuit beckons for Audi's most high-tech Quattro ever

The ongoing woes at Volkswagen over the diesel cheating scandal have brought the company down to earth with a very expensive bump.

At its luxury brand Audi, however, eyes are firmly on the stars. The marque that gained worldwide fame with its all-conquering Audi Quattro World Rally Championship car in the first half of the 1980s aims to win a global competition even its veteran champ Hannu Mikkola might baulk at – by rallying on the moon.

The Audi Lunar quattro moon rover has recently been tested in the Qatari desert as part of the preparations for its mission to travel to our nearest solar-system neighbour and win the US$25 million Google Lunar XPRIZE competition in 2017. The German engineers are working with a group called the Part-Time Scientists (PTS), formed in Berlin specifically to challenge for the prize and develop commercial space technology.

Leading the challenge is Jack Crenshaw who was responsible for the trajectory calculations of the Nasa Apollo programme in the 1960s and 1970s.

PTS is offering paying customers the chance to have something taken to the moon. These objects can be either of personal, commercial or technological value, it says. In each case individuals, organisations or companies can buy “payload” to bring their desired object to the moon. The rpices range from €800 per kilogram – from 0.5kg to 0.99kg – for a “small” object to €700 per kg for a large object weighing from 2kg and over, according to its website.

The team chose Qatar as the desert terrain resembles the environment on the moon. This is the first time that the rover has had its capabilities practically tested in extreme hot climate conditions.

To win the competition, a team – which must be at least 90 per cent privately financed – needs to transport an automated vehicle to the moon, which must then drive at least 500 metres on the surface and transmit high-resolution images and video footage back to Earth. In addition, the lunar vehicle must launch into space by the end of 2017 to cover the 380,000km to the moon. The trip takes five days and – according to estimates by the Audi PTS team – will cost about €24m (Dh99.8m).

While that poses a commercial question – surely the attempt will lose money win or lose? – other competitors are confident it will be worth while.

Moon Express, a US outfit that this month became the first to receive the US government’s greenlight for its planned Google prize moonshot, says flights to the moon can be profitable even if a company does not win the prize money.

“The marginal cost of a trip is now under $10m,” said the chairman and co-founder Naveen Jain. “Things that did not make sense when the cost of a trip was $1 billion are wildly profitable when it costs $10m.”

Moon Express said it already has paying customers for its first moon launch, which will deliver a telescope as well as the ashes of some people who want to be buried on the moon.

For the Audi quattro team, the target landing zone is north of the moon’s equator, close to the 1972 landing site of Nasa’s last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. In this region, temperatures fluctuate by an enormous 300°C; when the sun is shining, it gets up to 120°C due to the lack of an atmosphere, and at night the temperature plummets for the same reason.

Many of the rover’s components are made of high-strength aluminium and it weighs 35 kilograms. That will be further reduced by the use of magnesium and design modifications, even though the vehicle might become somewhat smaller in size. A swivelling solar panel captures sunlight, and the electricity it generates is fed to a lithium-ion battery that powers the four wheel-hub motors. All four of the wheels can be rotated 360 degrees.

The theoretical maximum speed is 3.6kph – but more important on the rugged surface of the moon are the vehicle’s off-road qualities and safe navigating abilities. Two stereo cameras that acquire detailed 3D images are mounted to a moving head at the front of the vehicle. A third camera is used to study materials, and it generates extremely high-resolution panoramic images.

The Audi team assisting the Part-Time Scientists have, in addition to their lightweight design competence, expertise on the quattro permanent all-wheel drive system and the electrical e-tron drive system. The goal here is to further enhance performance by making additional improvements to the electric motors, power electronics and battery, they say.

Mr Jain said his first probe will not return to Earth, but that the second trip will be its first round-trip flight. He added that once return trips are standard, lunar flights will have lots of business applications. And, he predicts, private flights will soon transport people to the moon and back.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say it’ll be sometime between 10 and 15 years,” he said.

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