Qatar doubles as the moon for Audi's rover test

The carmaker needed somewhere to test its lunar rover, so naturally it picked a Middle Eastern desert.

Neil Churchill August 22, 2016

There must be something cosmic about the Middle East's natural landscapes. Matt Damon’s The Martian was filmed at Jordan’s Mars-esque Wadi Rum - a place known as The Valley of the Moon. 

Abu Dhabi’s golden dunes became the desert landscape of Jakku in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And now Qatar is the latest space pretender, although for a far more important reason than to make a Hollywood blockbuster.

A lunar rover, owned by a group called the Part-Time Scientists and in collaboration with Audi, has been tested in Qatar's desert in preparation for its mission to the moon. If all goes well, the Qatari trial run could help the German group win the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition next year. Already the group’s rover has won two prizes in the competition, each worth $750,000. 

The Qatari desert was chosen due to its terrain and resemblance to the moon’s environment, where temperatures can fluctuate a massive 300 degrees. 

It was the first time the Audi Lunar quattro moon rover - to give it its full name - has been put through its paces in extreme heat, even though the desert’s climate is still a long way off the 120 degrees Celsius the moon experiences on a sunny day. 

The competition, which started with 34 entrants and is now whittled down to 16, requires each team to send an automated vehicle to the moon, touching down near the site of Apollo 17’s landing in 1972. The rover must then drive at least 500 metres and transmit high-resolution footage back to Earth.

The launch procedure alone will require a rocket to travel over 380,000 kilometres, taking five days and costing around $27 million, or AED 100 million. Each team must be at least 90 per cent privately funded.

Made from high-strength aluminium and magnesium, the rover weighs just 35 kilograms and has been fitted with Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive technology, meaning it should make light work of the moon’s uneven surface. It has a solar panel to generate power to its lithium-ion battery. 

As impressive as it is, the rover is certainly not a speed demon - the theoretical maximum speed is just 3.6 km/h. But its off-road qualities are what are important, and clearly Audi felt there was no better place on Earth to test them out than in Qatar’s desert.

What GCC-based space adventure will be next? Will Elon Musk’s SpaceX land one of its rockets in Oman’s Wahiba Sands? Possibly. After all, his hyperloop technology is already coming to the region.