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NASA tests new moon buggy near Flagstaff

Nasa tested its new chassis lunar vehicle iin the Arizona desert , which NASA says is similar to the moon’s surface in many respects. (Photo by Salvador Rodriguez)

Nasa tested its new chassis lunar vehicle in the Arizona desert , which NASA says is similar to the moon’s surface in many respects. (Photo by Salvador Rodriguez)

BLACK POINT LAVA FLOW, Ariz. – Researchers from National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened their desert testing facility to the media earlier this month to demonstrate their latest technology as they prepare for man’s return to the moon NASA’s new moon buggy, the Lunar Electric Rover, headlined the demonstration at Black Point Lava Flow, Ariz., with its state-of-the- art exploratory abilities.

At this year’s Desert RATS, a program to test exploration equipment in remote locations similar to the environments astronauts will face in space, two astronauts were able to live in the rover and explore their environment for 14 days without returning to a home base. Desert RATS is an acronym that stands for Research and Technology Studies.

Barbara Romig, a NASA engineer, said results of the Arizona tests mean astronauts, upon returning to the moon, will be able to explore for longer periods of time and greater distances than before.

“You can have your lunar outpost and then drive seven days away from it, then take seven days to come back and cover a lot more ground than if you could only go out on eight-hour excursions from the lunar outpost,” Romig said.

One of the astronauts who lived in the rover for four days, Mike Gernhardt, said the testing was a success and the data suggests astronauts could stay in the moon buggy for longer than 14 days.

“We were in good spirits the whole time, we performed well every day and it was actually a fun experience,” Gernhardt said. “In many ways, this is hard to believe, it’s a simpler life because you’re sleeping in there, you get up, you don’t have to drive your car, you don’t have to fill your gas and you don’t have to go to the grocery store. All the stuff you need is right here, and it really just optimizes the workday.”

Gernhardt, a four-flight veteran determined to set his own boot print on the moon, said the astronauts spent the bulk of the time researching a vast open area of desert near Flagstaff, which provides similar terrain to what future astronauts will face on the moon.

After research and preparations for the next day’s mission, Gernhardt said the astronauts made sure to each get an hour of exercise, as well as dinner and leisure time.

“Several nights we actually had movies inside,” he said. “And we’d lie on the bunks and watch the movie.”
Aside from the rover’s ability to play movies, NASA’s latest form of moon transportation is a six-wheeled pressurized cabin that looks more like a submarine than an electric car. It’s capable of holding a two- person crew for at least two weeks.

However, the new rover’s most advantageous evolution from the Apollo moon buggies is its ability to assist astronauts as a research tool as well as a mode of transportation.

Kip Hodges, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU and a geologist for NASA, said the rover will allow astronauts to explore more efficiently than by walking on the moon.

“The probability of you getting seriously injured or killed goes way up when you’re in a suit, so if there was a way that you could do geology without having to get out of a confined, protected environment then you certainly would prefer to do that,” Hodges said.

The rover accomplishes this through a set of cameras mounted on the vehicle and by its ability to twist a full 360 degrees and move in any direction. The rover also is able to tilt its cabin closer to the surface and give astronauts a closer view of the rocks they are researching. In this fashion, astronauts will not have to leave their vehicle until it is time to physically collect the specimens they want.

“It allows you to have a whole series of instruments that you could literally put right up onto the rock to interrogate the rock itself,” Hodges said. “All the kinds of instruments that you’ve heard of that are on the Mars rovers, they could be mounted on something like this too, so it would allow you to have all of that added awareness of the geology around you that’s really hard to pack into the confines of that spacesuit.”

The rover also allows astronauts to go from short sleeves to a full spacesuit in 10 minutes, which is roughly six hours faster than the time it takes on the International Space Station.

During the demonstration, Romig slid into one of the two spacesuits attached to the back of the rover.
While the new suits were not available at Desert RATS 2009, the ones used were mockups, Gernhardt said. NASA plans to design the new suits by 2011, with the goal of optimizing the weight of the suit and the center of gravity.

“If you watch the Apollo tapes – and we analyzed these – 2 to 3 percent of the time the Apollo astronauts are either falling down or getting up from falling down,” Gernhardt said. “It was because they had limited mobility and a bad center of gravity, so we’re working on all of that.”

Lucien Junkin, a chief engineer of the rover, also tested the Chassis, a six-wheeled base of the rover, which will be used sometime in the future. The Chassis, controlled by a laptop computer, was able to move around the tough terrain of the Arizona desert.

“We have literally just beat it up and ran it into the ground,” Junkin said, adding that the Chassis performed “well, very well.”

During the development of the rover and the Chassis, NASA considered using the Chassis on it’s own as an un-pressurized lunar vehicle, which is similar to the Apollo program’s moon buggies. However, Junkin said space transportation will never be un-pressurized again. “We did the testing last year and confirmed this is not the way we want to go back to the moon,” Junkin said.

Along with the rover, NASA also brought another robotic vehicle called the All-Terrain, Hex-Limbed, Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, or ATHLETE.

The ATHLETE, one of NASA’s newest lunar vehicles, is a 3 meter (about 9½ feet tall) automated vehicle
with six limbs, each with a wheel, that can both roll and walk to carry cargo around the moon.
“For a brand new vehicle it performed extremely well,” said Brian Wilcox, the chief investigator for the ATHLETE “It has the same kind of autonomy that the Mars rovers have now. You can tell it to go to a specific location. It’ll do that quite accurately.”

Though the ATHLETE is a slow-moving vehicle, with top speeds no faster than a human walking pace, it is capable of travelling hundreds of miles across the moon, Wilcox said.

“The scientists have indicated that they would exhaust the useful science in a region around a fixed location in about 30 days, so they need to be able to move from site to site in order to explore the whole moon,” Wilcox said.

The ATHLETE used in the demonstration, however, was not a full-scale model of the version NASA would like to send to the moon. The actual version of the ATHLETE would be twice as large, six-meters (about 19
feet) tall, and capable of carrying a payload of as much as 14.5 metric tons.

Wilcox said to accurately replicate on Earth the difficulty the vehicle will face on the moon, the ATHLETE would have to be reduced to a one-sixth scale of its real size because lunar gravity is one-sixth Earth gravity.

“Doing this at half-scale on Earth is actually harder than doing this at full-scale in lunar gravity because the moon has only one-sixth gravity, and as a result, things basically become six times harder to do in Earth’s gravity,” Wilcox said.

The ATHLETE is a product of four years of work. Wilcox said he hopes to see the robotic vehicle make it to the moon by the time NASA goes back. NASA is scheduled to return to the moon by 2020.

“Clearly, humans have to go beyond lower-Earth orbit at some point,” Wilcox said. “They went briefly back in the Apollo era, they went briefly outside of lower-Earth orbit, but it’s pretty clear that the destiny of humanity is to eventually go outside of lower-Earth orbit.

Though not a part of NASA, Green Trail Energy, a manufacturer of rapidly deployable mobile communication and renewable energy- generating systems, was invited to Desert RATS along with its GSW 7000 mobile-power system or “The Power Droid.”

The Power Droid at Desert RATS was 106-feet tall, weighed 20,000 pounds and was the strongest portable tower for sale in the U.S.

Green Trail Energy Executive Vice President Ken Kledzik said the Power Droid at the demonstration is capable of generating enough energy to power two 3,000 square feet houses using solar and wind technology.

On the day of the demonstration, the Power Droid succeeded in powering NASA’s lunar vehicles.
Kledzik said Green Trail Energy decide to build the Power Droid after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
“Part of the big problem is when you have a big disaster you don’t have electrical grid power,” Kledzik said. “What we hope to do … is to be able to provide power anywhere, anytime in the world to where you don’t have to depend on fossil fuels.”

Ashley Edwards, spokeswoman for NASA, said Desert RATS is expected to happen again next year. She said NASA is looking into bringing out the lunar habitat that astronauts would live in so they can practice interaction between the habitat and the vehicles.

“Each year you build it up piece by piece,” Edwards said. “Each year is little bit more of an advance.”
Edwards said Desert RATS allows NASA to find what works and what doesn’t in its projects. Most of the projects are built in different locations, she said, so it’s not until they are brought together that NASA can understand where the glitches are.

“Maybe something that doesn’t bug you after three days, but it drives you nuts after 14,” Edwards said. “We’re testing. That’s the whole point.”

“The geography of that location (in Arizona) is similar to what we’d expect on the lunar surface. It has a lot of things in common.”


  1. Long ago I obtained domain, MoonDepot.com, while awaiting NASA to renew its moon explorations. Now with water available, I want to move forward to help support the establishment of a moon base near the south pole of the moon, where craters, never having seen any sunlight, it is believed, will soon be bombarded by a water-seeking peaceful explosion…….a really powerful “dowsing” for a big water supply.

    These new moon buggies being tested by NASA will be just the thing to put to work on the venture.

    Let’s go!

    Bill Kraham, JD
    Senior menber, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

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