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Introducing the new 2017 Audi moon robot

Audi's efforts reflect a growing trend toward private participation in American space strategy driven by faith in American entrepreneurship and the need for space exploration to redefine itself in the tech age.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Audi displays the Audi Lunar Quattro, a prototype of a lunar rover it wishes to send to the moon, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, on Jan. 11. Audi's lunar rover manifests a growing trend toward private participation in American space strategy.

Audi displayed a new lunar rover at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week in the latest sign of space enthusiasm trickling into private industry.

The German automaker is partnering with the Berlin-based Part-Time Scientists to build the Audi Quattro Lunar Rover to show off its impeccable wheel traction, according to an Audi statement. But Audi's submission to the 2007 Google Lunar XPrize moon rover competition also reveals a growing faith in private innovation for space exploration. 

The new lunar rover, fresh from testing in rough terrain around the world, is set for a 2017 liftoff, Viknesh Vijayenthiran reported for Motor Authority. The aluminum vehicle features a solar panel to recharge its batteries, stereoscopic cameras, and four rotating, all-terrain wheels. The rover will be remotely controlled by operators on Earth. The mission: To arrive safely on the moon – no small feat – travel 500 meters, and transmit images back to Earth.

Car companies seem like natural enough partners with space scientists who are building a lunar rover, but Audi's participation in the Google XPrize lunar rover competition represents a growing interest in a more accessible space program.

If space really is the final frontier, the US government wants to turn loose some good old-fashioned American entrepreneurship on it. The tech industry has altered countless aspects of life on Earth in the last few decades. The 2015 SPACE Act would let companies try and do the same for space, as it provides regulations and legal infrastructure for companies that want to try and mine resource-rich asteroids.

The successful launch and landing of reusable rockets by SpaceX and Blue Origin at the end of 2015 show how the new strategy is already working. Private companies that answer to neither investors nor the sometimes fickle federal government are taking strides toward making space an affordable venture, wrote The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts.

"How low can you get the price, and how many customers can you get at that price?” Jonathan Coopersmith, a historian at Texas A&M University whose work focuses in part on the US space program, said to the Monitor.

Public relations provide another benefit to the increased participation by private companies and groups. The space race with Russia is over, and no new moon missions are planned. So Americans require new reasons to view NASA as relevant to their lives and goals. Giving other organizations a stake in space exploration, from SpaceX launches to NASA's ready help for the 2015 movie, "The Martian," helps to overcome the hurdles.

"It's probably indicative of a shift in thought, for a lot of people it's seeing movies like 'The Martian' and 'Interstellar," James Schwab, who has participated in two Mars Rover challenges, says of the increased interest in space among Americans.

NASA has technology for more advancement in space but has needed a push from the public interest, Schwab told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

"Scientists for years have been pointing out that as far as technology goes, we don't really need that much more," he says. "Most people's cell phones have more computational power than the space shuttle did."

The degree to which space could be popularized is unknown, but an Audi lunar rover at a Detroit auto show suggests the process has begun.

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