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Monday, 2 June 2008

Not a Mercury or Saturn, but It Goes Way Off Road

Published: March 30, 2008

IT turns on a dime and parallel-parks like a dream.

On the downside, it’s a little pricey (at $2 million or so) and its top speed is a pokey 15 miles an hour.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the concept car taking shape here at the Johnson Space Center.

Did I say car? The new moon buggy conceived by space center engineers is anything but a car or a buggy. Its official name is Chariot, and this, my friends, is a truck. A heavy duty workhorse of a truck.

This model took a year to build. It looks kind of like what you’d get if a monster truck had a ménage à trois with a flatbed trailer and a medieval siege engine.

As a concept car, it is more than just ideas in metal and rubber, Mr. Junkin said. He said he hoped it would be attention-getting enough to be “a signature item for return to the moon” — the kind of object that in itself can build excitement about NASA’s new lunar program.

Basically, it is a long flatbed with six sets of double tires, each set independently steered. At one end is the driver’s seat — actually, a rotating turret with a computer screen and a joystick — along with a host of cameras, lights and sensors that would let the rover be driven by remote control, or even to make its way along the barren plains of the moon or Mars with a degree of autonomy.

The astronaut driver would snap himself or herself into the turret — it’s designed to accommodate a space suit — with a rigid seatback inspired by those in Nascar.

Mr Junkin has a degree in mechanical engineering and a lot of experience with robotics. Standing in the turret, he grabs the joystick and punches commands into the video screen. He turns the turret to the left and right, and the wheels swivel to drive in the direction he is facing.

He stops and invites me to put my feet in the metallic gold restraints on the back of the vehicle- “contingency seats,” for two astronauts whose other rover may have broken down.

I strap in, and Mr. Junkin sets off toward the moon.

He is driving in an open patch of dirt at the edge of the Johnson Space Center, and his gravel expertise is much in evidence here. There is a steep hill strewn with rocks, a patch of gravel with three “craters” deep enough to challenge the vehicle, and another patch of red dirt with larger rocks cast about that is supposed to simulate the Martian surface. It is an otherworldly scene, rendered only slightly less so by the sight of an apartment complex across Space Center Boulevard.

As he drives up over the lip of a crater, the wheels under me edge out over nothing and don’t touch the gravel until the vehicle is far enough out over the edge that gravity brings my end down.

This feels a little like being on the end of a diving board just as somebody releases it from its stand, but I have my right arm hooked over a railing, so I get only a jolt that will make me more aware of my shoulder’s existence for a day or two. Once in the crater, he crabs up the side again, gravel spitting away as the wheels steadily move us upward.

Rubber tires like these will never touch regolith, the abrasive dust and rock that covers the moon. This buggy was built to test ideas for the next generation of lunar vehicles, successors to the Mars rovers.

Its six sets of wheels can be independently steered so that it can revolve in place — or “crab” — to the left and right on its way uphill. To use a terrestrial example, it could slide sideways into a tight parking space.

It also has an active suspension — really active. The driver can raise or lower the chassis from ground level to about 28 inches high.

Mr. Junkin sees his robotic creation as the kind of machine that could land on the moon in the years before humans return, potentially clearing a patch of land and preparing it for construction. The team has tested a bulldozer blade for the front of the rover and started pushing gravel around. “It worked so well, I was surprised,” he exclaimed.

But at 4,500 pounds, this beast is far too heavy to hoist moonward. It is far too big as well. The first lunar rovers of the 1960s folded up like mechanical origami, and so did the Mars rovers; the moon truck will almost certainly need some of that Transformer magic as well.

Its off-the-shelf parts — commercial tires, cheap Webcam — would never make it in the extreme environment of space. “Our thought is, we can take a version and run it around and test it” here, Mr. Junkin said, and then make choices about what works and what trade-offs need to be made.

NASA has suggested that the final version might even be a covered and pressurized vehicle that would let its passengers to work in the same shirtsleeve environment that they enjoy on the space shuttle and the International Space Station; suits would be incorporated into the exterior of the vehicle with the back of the suit open so that the explorers would step into them, seal up and then walk out onto the lunar surface.

Such concepts go too far for some at NASA of a more critical bent. One scientist, who insisted on anonymity out of concern for his career, called the current thinking on moon rovers “sheer fantasy” that relies on plans for something that would be too heavy and too expensive, and would leave astronauts too vulnerable to the intense radiation that washes over the moon.

The design team is small — 10 people. Mr. Junkin is chief engineer, and there are other engineers for suspension, transmission, batteries, power distribution, software. “We like to say it was Apollo-like,” Mr. Junkin said, referring to the rapid decision-making and flexibility of the nation’s first lunar program.source

My comment: There were some hints here about the project and that its more made on popularity basis than on scientific basis. I find this very very bad sign. People not wanting to comment from fear for their careers? I think one should ask him/her self into what NASA is transforming....Of course, I find the truck pretty cool, but whether it is doable, that I cannot say.Especially when it's the only thing on that mission that is in that stage of the development.

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