April 20, 2024

As the world once again turns to the moon, the U.S. is worried about being left in the lunar dust and has turned to Northrop Grumman — among others — to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected the West Falls Church, Virginia-based aerospace and defense technology company to study the feasibility of building a “Lunar Railroad” on the moon. The potential network of rails and trains could transport humans, supplies, and resources, for projects across the moon, contributing to a “space economy,” according to DARPA.

Northrop Grumman is tasked with establishing what resources and interfaces are required to build a lunar railroad, determine the cost of such a project, and name any risks of the undertaking. It will also need to identify prototypes and explore concepts for building and operating the system with robotics.

“This investment in key developmental research keeps our technology at the forefront of next generation solutions,” Chris Adams, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of strategic space systems, said in a statement. “With our proven experience in the integration of complex systems and commercialized autonomous services, we will continue to create lasting change for a sustainable space ecosystem,” he added.

The project is part of DARPA’s 10-year Lunar Architecture — or LunA-10 — study, a seven-month examination announced last August. The goal is to develop a quantifiable analysis to get a “self-sustaining, monetizable, commercially owned-and-operated lunar infrastructure.” 

DARPA is looking to have a private economy on the moon by 2035. By 2040, the lunar economy could be a $170 billion market (pdf), according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“LunA-10 continues this rich legacy by identifying and accelerating key technologies that may be used by government and the commercial space industry, and ultimately to catalyze economic vibrancy on the Moon,” said Dr. Michael Nayak, the program manager of DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office.

Thirteen companies, in addition to Northrop Grumman, have been chosen to conduct experiments and studies. These include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Firefly Aerospace. Each will discuss their work next month at the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium before providing a final report in June.

The U.S. isn’t alone in pursuing the lunar economy.

Japanese researchers from Kyoto University have proposed an interplanetary transportation system — the Hexatrack — that would let people take a bullet train to the moon. They also aim to build “The Glass,” a structure with artificial gravity that will feature public transportation, green areas, and bodies of water.

China has won over several countries — including Pakistan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates — in its push for the moon. Each of those countries has signed agreements to engage in China’s International Lunar Research Station moon base initiative, which aims to launch a permanent base by the end of the decade.

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