All-wheel drive, solar powered Lunar Rover has already won two 'Milestone' prizes, for chassis and optical development. Picture: Audi

Berlin, Germany - We’ve said already that this Audi quattro project is about as far off-road as it gets - right out of this world, in fact.

But that doesn’t make it any the less real.

Audi has been helping a Berlin-based engineering group calling themselves the “Part-Time Scientists” with their entry in the Lunar X-Prize competition.

The contest is open to engineers and business enterprises worldwide - as long as they are at least 90 percent privately funded - and there is about $30 million (R500 million) in prize money up for grabs.

To win it, all you have to do is transport an automated vehicle to the moon before the end of 2017; the rover must then drive at least half a kilometre on the moon and transmit high-resolution images and video back to earth. Easy.

The organisers want the entries to land just north of the lunar equator, close to the 1972 landing site of the last Nasa manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17.

New quattro is out of this world

The Audi Lunar Rover working group consists of 10 people from from different technical departments, bringing to the table expertise in lightweight design, quattro all-wheel drive, e-tron electric drive technology - and they plan to improve the performance of the rover still further with better electric motors, power electronics and batteries.

They are also providing wide-ranging assistance in testing, trials and quality assurance. Specialist from Quality Assurance will study parts for wear after testing, using their high-tech tools and methods, while the motors and and electronic components are subjected to stress tests in climate chambers (the temperature at the lunar equator varies from -180 degrees at night to 120 in full daylight, due to the lack of an atmosphere) and all the while, the Audi Concept Design supergeeks in Munich are refining the design of the rover.

IMPROVING THE DESIGN

The prototype weighs about 35kg; it’s mostly made of high-strength aluminum, but the Audi whitecoats are hoping to reduce that with better design and the use of magnesium alloys where they can - even if it gets a bit bigger in the process.

The solar panel on top swivels to catch sunlight and the electricty it generates is fed to lithium-ion battery pack that powers the four wheel-hub motors - each of which can be rotated through 360 degrees.

Top speed is about 3.6km/h - but more important on the rugged surface of the moon are the rover’s off-road capability and navigational skills. Those are provided by a pair of stereo cameras in the moving head on the front of the vehicle that create 3D images of the terrain ahead and a third camera that creates extremely high-resolution images, mostly used for studying materials.

The rover has been tested on terrain as varied as the Austrian Alps and Tenerife, and it has already been awarded two ‘Milestone’ prizes - each worth $750 000 (R12.5 million) - by the competition jury, for the development of the rover and its optical systems.

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