Image: Nasa rover
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This view of NASA's Small Pressurized Rover shows its ability for sideways and rotating 'crab-like' movements. Credit: NASA Edge.
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updated 10/29/2008 12:03:13 PM ET 2008-10-29T16:03:13

NASA's new prototype for a future moon truck is proving to be the ultimate lunar RV, allowing astronauts to take extended road trips without the constant drag of bulky spacesuits.

A terrestrial version of the Small Pressurized Rover, which can go forward, reverse and side-to-side to tackle tough terrain, is completing a three-day drive across the Arizona desert today after a successful week of testing, NASA officials said.

"It's just an incredibly capable machine," said Doug Craig, NASA's strategic analysis manager for the exploration systems at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "It's going great and everyone's really pleased with it."

Astronauts and geologists split into two, two-person teams to test the unpressurized and pressurized rover versions on the barren Black Point lava fields of Arizona.

The rover is part of NASA's bid to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 under the Constellation program. While some engineers are developing program's Orion spacecraft, Ares I and V rockets, and Altair landers, others are testing how best to move astronauts on the moon once they get there.

Humans first drove vehicles on the moon in 1971, when Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin unfolded their electric Lunar Roving Vehicle from its berth on their Falcon lander. Two other moon cars followed on NASA's last two Apollo flights, but those rovers were built for limited trips.

"Those lunar rovers were disposable, so they were only going to be used for two or three days," Craig told SPACE.com. "These that we're looking now, we're looking at up to five years length on the moon."

The new moon trucks are designed to serve as either a cargo carrier or lunar buggy. The pressurized module version sports a pair of rear-mounted spacesuits with connecting backpacks. Astronauts would step into suits, shut the backpack hatch and then detach themselves for lunar exploration. The recent tests found rover drivers could suit up relatively easily, Craig said.

"We ended up having to build in hold times because they could get in and out so fast," he added.

Under NASA's current plan, two rover teams would take their moon trucks out on journeys that could last up to two weeks away from a lunar base. If one rover breaks down, all four astronauts could pile into the remaining vehicle and head home.

The new moon truck actually suffered a flat tire on Monday, with its drivers suiting up and successfully swapping out the flat with a new one, Craig added.

The longest ever lunar rover trip during the Apollo era covered just under 8 miles (12.5 km), according to NASA records.

"We're talking about hundreds of kilometers," Craig added. "This is a completely different paradigm than Apollo."

Driving like a moon crab
NASA's new moon rover consists of two separate parts: the RV-like pressurized cabin and the 12-wheeled Chariot base that can be driven independently by a spacesuit-clad astronaut while perched atop a rotating control turret.

"One of the surprises was how much better the Small Pressurized Rover was than the unpressurized rover," said Craig, adding that the teams found driving from the unpressurized turret tough going. "When you're in a suit for eight hours and being bounced around, it really beat them up. At the end of the day, they were really fatigued."

But even after 10 hours of driving from inside the pressurized version, the test crews were still primed for more mock moon roving action, he added.

NASA's Chariot moon truck chassis consists of six bug-like legs, each of which tipped with two wheels. The 2,204-pound (1,000-kg) vehicle is about 15 feet (4.5 meters) long capable of hauling twice its weight in cargo and driving up to 6 mph (10 kph) on rough terrain. Each of the wheel talks can pivot 360 degrees and be lifted up to clear rocks or other obstacles, giving the Chariot the ability to mimic a crab's flexible mobility, Craig said.

The pressurized cabin adds an extra 4,409 pounds (2,000 kg) of weight to the rover, but comes with extra amenities like living quarters, cabinets for provisions and tools, and a shielded section for shelter against radiation events.

"They provide a safe haven for astronauts on the lunar surface in case there's a solar flare," Craig said. "In Apollo, they didn't have that safe haven, and they'd have to go back to the lander."

In addition to the step-in spacesuits, the rovers have a large side hatch designed to attach directly to a moon base entrance.

"These are still concepts, "Craig said, adding that new modifications will likely follow the Black Point tests. "It's been a really good test out there. We're learning a lot."

NASA spent about $38 million to develop its Apollo lunar rovers in the 1960s and 1970s, according to agency records. But the final cost for the new moon buggies remain to be seen.

"The line is 'more than a Ferrari,'" said Craig, adding that the current concept is a mix-match of parts and improvements, must still be refined into a final design. "It's kind of hard to put a number on it."

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