NASA’s 12-wheeled Small Pressurized Rover raced (for a lunar rover that is) across the moon-like Arizona outback this week at 6 mph (10 kmh) as part of the 11th annual Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS). A two-man crew took the buggy on one-day trips to test its performance and comfort, and is scheduled to take it on three-day trips later this week.
NASA is aiming to return man to the moon by 2020, almost 50 years after the last manned moon landing in 1972. This time it’s hoped the astronauts will construct a long-term lunar base and mount larger expeditions. To help with both goals, a new generation of lunar rovers is being designed to facilitate more frequent, convenient and safer lunar travel. While the buggies on the Apollo missions only provided a 6 mile range, the presence of two or more SPRs will provide a range of over 150 miles.
Forty years after Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, plans are afoot to revisit the site to see how the remains have stood up to four decades of radiation and micrometeorite bombardment. One vehicle that may well be used for this expedition is the third prototype lunar robot from Lunar X Prize entrant Astrobotic. The rover is one tough nut – it’s designed to survive the blistering heat of the lunar ‘noontime extreme’, which sees temperatures reach 270 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as the minus 240 degree Fahrenheit temperatures of the lunar night.
The project is headed by Dr William ‘Red’ Whittaker, the Carnegie Mellon robotics professor whose name will be familair to Gizmag readers following his success in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.
Recently, as the world celebrated the first lunar landing, Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins both called for NASA to make Mars its next goal. But the chemical propulsion system that took them to the moon would take six months, at least, to get a man to Mars and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. However, a new ion plasma rocket being developed by another former astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, could potentially reach Mars in just 39 days using a fraction of the fuel.
Theoretical work commissioned to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) by the European Space Agency has recently concluded that lasers capable of generating extremely short pulses — known as “femtosecond comb lasers” — could be of great help in measuring the distance between two or more spacecraft to an accuracy of just a few microns, an essential component to formation flying space missions scheduled for the next decades.
Plasma Rockets have been long discussed to be better alternatives to the conventional thrusters used for space flights, but so long, the plasma rockets haven’t really gone much ahead on the path. Now, a development by Ad Astra rocket company, the VASIMR rocket could really give a thrust to the Plasma Rockets. The company’s VASIMR VX-200 engine can generate 201kW in a vacuum chamber, and is now scheduled to be tested aboard the ISS in 2013.