Sarah Cunnard, Leanne Cunnold, Michelle Keegan and Dawn McIntosh
Sarah Cunnard, Leanne Cunnold, Michelle Keegan and Dawn McIntosh lead Australia's lunar project. Image by HANDOUT/PR PERTH
  • science (general)

Four ‘chicks’ head up Australia’s lunar rover project

Katelyn Catanzariti November 13, 2023

There was never a plan for four ‘chicks’ to head up NASA’s lunar rover design project in Australia.

They were simply the best choice, they say.

“It wasn’t like we need four women … it was just ‘these are the right people for the job and, by the way, they’re all chicks’,” AROSE Consortium’s lead engineer Sarah Cannard tells AAP.

Women make up only 27 per cent of Australia’s STEM workforce, with just 23 per cent of senior management and only eight per cent performing as CEOs according to the latest figures from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

So the arrangement is unfamiliar but exciting, Space Systems Director Dawn McIntosh says.

“One of the things I love about space missions is that no one person can build this complex system, no one person has the knowledge to do so, so it requires collaboration,” she says.

“It requires you to bring a team of people with disparate skills together and I think space geeks like me can really embrace that because what’s better than surrounding yourself with a bunch of really smart people to do a really hard thing?”

Ms Cannard and Ms McIntosh work with Program Director Michelle Keegan and CEO Leanne Cunnold on the plan to design a lunar rover vehicle that can be remotely operated from Australia.

An artist's impression of the AROSE lunar rover
 The AROSE lunar rover is in development for NASA’s Artemis space mission. Image by HANDOUT/PR PERTH 

The NASA space program in the US is cherry-picking the best of the best technology from nearly 30 contributing nations to give the Artemis moon mission its best chance for success.

It chose Australia as its strategic partner to work on the rover due to the nation’s proven expertise in remote operations.

“We’re really comfortable with automation, having huge mining vehicles driving around two thousand kilometres away with no humans on board,” Ms Cannard says.

“It’s cool but it’s not new or unique. It’s just business as usual.”

AROSE is one of two Australian consortiums working on early-stage prototypes for an Australian-designed and built lunar rover for the Trailblazer program by the middle of 2024.  

If successful, the team led by Fugro and Nova Systems will then build, test, deploy and operate the moon rover for the Artemis lunar landing, expected to take place at the end of 2026, from a newly built Australian Space Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Control Complex in Perth’s CBD.

The job of the rover will be to collect regolith – sticky, abrasive and glass-hard shards of soil found on the moon’s surface – and transport it to NASA’s extraction facility on the moon.

“If we can get a robot to do the dull, dirty and dangerous job at a mine site that’s 2000 km away, the edge of space is only 100 km away, so the logistics of it are easier to some extent,” Ms Cannard says.

The Adelaide-based engineer says she was always passionate about space but “cut her teeth” in the industry by testing defence aerospace assets and hypersonic rockets in the Woomera Range.

During that time, Australia launched its own space agency, opening up opportunities for her to enter the industry without having to move to Europe or the US.

Aside from its knowledge of remote AI technology (“the touchy feely stuff”), Australia’s space game is strong, she says.

The country is both politically and geographically stable and its vast emptiness means there is little interference for the giant antennae that do observations.

“Australia is amazing at space science,” says Ms Cannard.

“We are literally world leaders at space research.”

Having worked at NASA and only moved to Australia two years ago, Ms McIntosh says it’s a watershed moment for Australia’s space program.

“It’s exciting, seeing that shift into Australia being a country that does space,” she says.

“It captures everyone’s attention and it is inspirational and it drives stem and it has huge returns on investment.

“Australia … was always in a support role but now with an agency in place we get to be in a leadership and it’s exciting to watch it happen.”