DARPA picks Northrop Grumman to develop 'lunar raiload' concept

Railroads could open the moon to serious and sustained economic development, as they did in the American West in the late 19th century.

That’s apparently the hope of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is supporting the development of a “lunar railroad” concept proposed by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman.

“The envisioned lunar railroad network could transport humans, supplies and resources for commercial ventures across the lunar surface, contributing to a space economy for the United States and international partners,” Northrop Grumman representatives wrote in a press statement on Tuesday (March 19).

Related: DARPA wants to build a ‘thriving commercial economy’ on the moon in 10 years

Northrop Grumman was one of 14 companies that DARPA selected this past December to participate in its 10-Year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) Capability Study, which aims to help humanity extend its economic footprint into deep space.

“A large paradigm shift is coming in the next 10 years for the lunar economy,” Michael Nayak, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said in a statement last August, when the agency announced the LunA-10 project.

“To get to a turning point faster, LunA-10 uniquely aims to identify solutions that can enable multi-mission lunar systems — imagine a wireless power station that can also provide comms and navigation in its beam,” Nayak said. Such work, he added, will accelerate “key technologies that may be used by government and the commercial space industry, and ultimately to catalyze economic vibrancy on the moon.

While DARPA’s December press statement revealed the 14 selected companies — which also include big names like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — it did not describe the work that they will do.

Northop Grumman gave a brief outline of the lunar railroad investigation in its statement on Tuesday. The company’s LunA-10 study will do the following (in Northrop Grumman’s words):

  • Define the interfaces and resources required to build a lunar rail network.

  • Establish a critical list of foreseeable cost, technological and logistical risks.

  • Identify prototypes, demonstrations and analyses of a fully operating lunar rail system’s concept design and architecture.

  • Explore concepts for constructing and operating the system with robotics, including grading and foundation preparation, track placement and alignment, joining and finishing, inspection, maintenance and repair.


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Northrop Grumman’s Tuesday statement did not provide funding details. DARPA gives a ballpark number in its August 2023 announcement, stating that selected studies “will receive an Other Transaction award not to exceed $1,000,000.”

The selected LunA-10 companies will share their work at the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium Spring Meeting next month and write up final reports that will be released in June, according to DARPA.

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