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Neptec Design Group has previously developed and built moon rover concepts, including one called Juno that was tested in 2009. ((Neptec Design Group))

An Ottawa-based space technology company has won an $11.5-million contract to build a lunar rover prototype for the Canadian Space Agency.

The lunar light exploration rover will be designed to be able to carry equipment, cargo and astronauts during moon exploration, Neptec Design Group said in a news release announcing the contract.

The company is collaborating on the project with Ontario Drive and Gear Ltd., COM DEV Canada, McGill University, Northern Centre for Advanced Technology Inc. and NGC Aerospace.

Iain Christie, president of Neptec Design Group, said Tuesday the goal of the project is to be able to "test some ideas about what a utility tractor rover for the moon should do, can do, would do and how it could be built."

The solar-powered vehicle will have an original eight-wheeled, skid-steer locomotion system designed to help it navigate the moon’s rugged, steep slopes. Depending on the technology and tools it carries, it might be able to map the lunar surface, drill for water, perform excavation and prepare landing sites for lunar landers, the company said on its website.

It will be equipped with a vision system, communication system and software that will allow it to be operated remotely from Earth or the moon and perform some activities without human intervention.

No plans for space

According to the Canadian Space Agency, there are no plans to send the rover into space. However, it will be tested at sites on Earth that are similar to the moon, such as Antarctica, before the contract ends on Dec. 30, 2012.

Lunar rover vs. Mars rover

A lunar rover differs from a Mars rover because of the following critical variations between the moon and Mars:

  • Gravity.
  • Atmosphere.
  • Solar radiation.
  • Soil.
  • Distance from the earth.

The company has previously developed and built moon rover concepts, including one called Juno that was tested in 2009. But this contract is a big step forward from those because the earlier rovers never had to show their technology was capable of flying to the moon, Christie said.

"In the space business, there's a big difference between stuff that you build to test concepts and stuff that you build to fly."

Canadian Space Agency spokesperson Julie Simard told CBC News in an email the Juno rovers were quick prototypes for a CSA-NASA deployment in Hawaii. The new vehicles are more sophisticated rovers for research on the moon or Mars.

Simard added that the lunar rover is larger than the Mars rover, with a higher payload, and can also be upgraded to carry people.

The new prototype to be tested on Earth will still have some differences from a potential version slated for the moon, Christie said, because the Earth's gravity is six times stronger. The Earth has an atmosphere, while the moon is surrounded by a vacuum. However, the team must show how their rover could be modified to make it qualified for space.

In September, the Canadian Space Agency awarded Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates a $6-million contract to build a Mars rover prototype.

Simard said the $11.5-million lunar rover is more expensive because it is larger than the Mars rover, and the human upgradability feature is new and will require more research and development.