STELLS lunar rover
Canadian startup STELLS is developing a rover designed to provide power to other vehicles on the lunar surface, with launch scheduled by 2025. Credit: STELLS

WASHINGTON — A Canadian startup is developing a rover it plans to launch to the moon in the next few years to provide power to other spacecraft on the lunar surface.

Toronto-based STELLS unveiled its plans Nov. 21 to develop its Mobile Power Rover (MPR), a rover that will generate power from its solar arrays and can transfer it through wireless charging to other vehicles on the lunar surface. Its MPR-1 rover is slated to launch by 2025 as a payload on an Intuitive Machines lander to the south polar regions of the moon.

In an interview, Alex Kapralov, chief executive of STELLS, said he started the company to develop a rover for scientific missions. “We found issues in terms of power and mobility for small and medium-sized rover and even human missions to be able to get enough power in permanently shadowed regions” of craters at the lunar poles, he said.

He said the company briefly considered using a radioisotope thermoelectric generator on its rover, but technical and policy challenges ruled that out. Instead, the company decided to pursue a rover that could generate and transfer solar power to other vehicles on the lunar surface.

The rover will transfer power using wireless technology, moving to a customer’s vehicje. Another approach would be to leave the wireless charging unit in the crater, then have the rover move out of the crater into sunlight, allowing it to generate power and transfer it through a cable to that charging unit that other vehicles would travel to.

Kapralov said the company has completed a prototype of the rover and has started work on a “proto-flight” model closer to the actual rover. The MPR-1 rover, weighing about 30 kilograms, will primarily be a demonstration, but he expects some commercial use of its power transfer capabilities. “We are planning partnerships with those are coming with us on the lander,” he said, although there are no formal contracts in place yet.

STELLS is not the first company to pursue a power distribution system on the moon. Astrobotic announced plans in September for LunaGrid, which would combine its work on lunar landers with separate development of vertical solar arrays optimized for use at the lunar poles. Tethered rovers would deliver the power to customers.

Kapralov argues his company’s approach is simpler, with the rover itself generating the power. He added STELLS has been in talks with Astrobotic about flying a rover on a future Astrobotic lander mission; the company’s website lists Astrobotic as one of several collaborators, along with Intuitive Machines.

Kapralov’s background is in the tech industry, including serving as chief executive of Pixfuture, an ad tech company. “I was always thinking about the space industry,” he said, but what spurred him to start STELLS was a conversation with an employee who previously worked in the space industry, who convinced him a mission like a lunar rover was “complicated but doable.”

STELLS current has about 20 employees, he said, working at a Toronto facility. Kapralov is funding the company himself using his holding company, but he said he plans to look for outside investment and government contracts to support future work.

He did not disclose the estimated cost to build and fly MPR-1, but said the largest expense will be the transportation to get the rover to the moon: about $1 million per kilogram or $30 million for the 30-kilogram rover. “Building the rover itself is not something that is super new,” he said. “The main thing is how you make it to be simple and survivable. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

The announcement of MPR-1 comes a week after the Canadian Space Agency announced it awarded a $43 million Canadian ($32 million) contract to Canadensys Aerospace Corporation to build a rover carrying six scientific payloads. That rover will fly on a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services mission to the moon no earlier than 2026. Kapralov said that while STELLS had been working on a scientific lunar rover initially, it did not compete for the Canadian Space Agency mission.

“Every time I speak with people from the space industry and explain to them our project, they support it,” he said. “They see that all of these missions need power. They need to have redundancy for their missions. They want to go further and we want to go further with them and provide them with power.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...